Two women straddle an invisible line between two lawns — one slightly patchier than the other — with baby monitors and coffee mugs in hand. They haven’t known each other long; in fact, they had just spoken for the first time at the Stop & Shop the night before, but tears are already flowing.
“Do I seem like a good mom,” asks Jessie (Jessica Dickey), the woman to whom the greener backyard belongs, gasping for breath after she gets the sentence out. “You are wearing jeans,” responds the other woman, Lina (Andrea Syglowski). “You are killing it.”
She punctuates each word with a snap, and the message is clear: Sometimes after childbirth, it’s the little things — buttoning back up into real denim, an uninterrupted cup of coffee, perusing the produce section at the local grocery store just to pass the time. Similarly, in a heavily character-driven play like “Cry it Out,” it’s the little things — the nuances, the details — that both ground and elevate a plot that could easily sidewind into mundanity or caricature.
The story itself is simple. Two neighbors, both of whom have newborns, turn to each other for companionship during the lonely first few weeks of new motherhood.
On the surface, they don’t appear an obvious fit. Jessie is a lawyer with an Ivy League education, while Lina works in an entry-level hospital administration position. Jessie prefers pastel J. Crew sweaters and Keds; Lina rocks velour tracksuits and neon green acrylic nails. Jessie’s husband, an investment banker, is eyeing a vacation home next to his parents’ seaside cottage, while Lina and her longtime boyfriend rent space from his alcoholic mother.
Again, with its odd couple framework, “Cry it Out” could have ended up in bad Neil Simon knockoff territory. But here’s the thing — playwright Molly Smith Metzler (whose work you’ve seen on at least a few episodes of “Orange is the New Black”) knows how to write women. She knows how to take these women’s disparate experiences and use them to highlight commonality and basic human desires.
During Jessie and Lina’s afternoon coffees — which are scheduled around their newborns’ nap times — it’s as if the audience is listening in on real, intimate conversations, a sense highlighted by William Boles’ immersive scenic design and director Davis McCallum’s expert staging.
These moments are tender, revealing and incisive — they cover everything from baby snot to a mother’s role in the modern household. As a result, we learn to care for these women and their relationship with each other quickly.
The character development is organic. For that reason, the few scenes that feel more performed — the ones that move past the little moments and expand into big points of exposition — can register as jolting.
Specifically, I’m thinking of when we are introduced to a new couple, the seemingly icy Adrienne and her husband Mitchell (the endearing Jeff Biehl), who have also just had a baby.
They’re the “we have a household assistant and weekend nanny, both of whom have master’s degrees in early childhood development” kind of affluent, and their rocky relationship is obviously meant to shake things up.
And it does.
Mitchell, who awkwardly admits to watching the moms’ afternoon coffees using his back-porch telescope, sees Jessie as an ideal mom. He begins confiding in her about Adrienne’s coldness towards their daughter Livia. “It’s like an alien has taken over my wife,” he whispers. In turn, Jessie speculates that perhaps Adrienne is struggling with postpartum depression.
Several scenes later, Adrienne (who is played with passion by Liv Rooth) confronts Jessie about the unwelcomed intrusion into her marriage. She’s not depressed, she says, rather she is enraged (a fact that is screamed after Adrienne announced her presence by slinging raw eggs at Jessie’s house).
We learn that Adrienne, a jewelry designer, scored a huge contract with Barney’s right before she got pregnant — a process that took four failed in vitro fertilization attempts, by the way — and that she loves her daughter an incredible amount.
But she values her job as much; it’s an admission, she says, Mitchell could make without causing a stir. The point itself is key in the context of a play that circles on the pressures placed on new mothers, but one that feels slightly forced and frantic in its delivery.
Regardless, “Cry it Out” is consistently masterful in creating characters who feel real. None are above reproach, but all have lovable — or at least relatable — attributes, something that bolsters a production that presents a more comprehensive picture of the challenges and triumphs of new motherhood.
Humana Fest performances run through April 9.