As someone who mixes her time between writing for the stage and for TV, Molly Smith Metzler says she encounters very different ideas in Hollywood and in the New York-centered theater world about which stories need to be told.
Decision makers in one medium seem fixated on a closed system of dramatic ideas. In the other, there's an appetite for stories that reflect a wider spectrum of human experience.
If you figure it's the TV folks who are typically afraid to break from the mold, you'd be wrong.
Take Metzler’s play “Cry It Out,” a sharply detailed view of new parents navigating their new worlds, centered on three women’s decisions about whether, when, and how to go back to work full-time after childbirth.
It has flourished in regional theater, and Chelsea’s Apollinaire Theatre Company stages a production that begins performances Friday. It has been reviewed well around the country and Metzler is much gratified by its success. But she thinks the lack of interest in producing the show in New York, specifically — it’s gotten a “goose egg” there, she says — is reflective of a mothball-encased mentality that still pervades the male-dominated upper echelons of American theater.
“On this coast,” she says from Los Angeles, where she’s show-running an in-development series for Netflix, “it’s opened all of the doors. Everybody wants a story about a young, single mother. It’s considered important. It’s considered drama. It’s a take-out-the-checkbook subject.”
She’s currently adapting Stephanie Land’s memoir “Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay and a Mother’s Will to Survive” for Netflix. She’s also produced and written episodes of “Shameless” on Showtime and served as executive story editor for “Casual” on Hulu and Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black.” She got her start in playwriting at Boston University’s renowned MFA program, which she describes as “the best thing that happened to me as a writer.”
When “Cry It Out” played at the influential Humana Festival of New American Plays at the Actors Theatre of Louisville, Metzler got feedback from artistic directors of key New York theaters.
One, a man, said he wished the character of Jessie had changed over the course of the play. (Smith wonders if Jessie’s arc, which centers on parenting approaches and her decision about whether to quit her job, was simply invisible to the man.) Another, a woman, said she just doesn’t care for “plays about moms.”
“If we deviate from the acceptable story structure of plays that are by default written with a masculine point of view, that is what we’re up against a little bit,” Metzler says. “There’s this sense of: It’s a sweet play and it’s nice that moms have their little place in theater. But the theater is still a place that’s dominated by stories people consider to be larger stories — and people don’t consider moms to be a larger story.”
Though this line of thinking has suffered withering critiques in recent years, it persists.
“It is kind of still very much a thing that if the story centers around women, it tends to be seen as niche market. If it if centers around men, it’s seen as for everyone,” says Danielle Fauteux Jacques, Apollinaire’s artistic director and the stage director for this production.
It features Becca A. Lewis as Jessie, a lawyer on maternity leave with her first child who is tempted to give up her job. Lily Kaufman plays Lina, a new mom with a strict timetable for getting back to her entry-level position as a hospital administrator.
These neighbors and new friends also encounter a husband-and-wife pair of new parents, Adrienne (Amie Lytle) and Mitchell (Cameron Gosselin), who confound some of their views about parenthood and underline the role played by class in many of those decisions.
The very funny play is filled with pop culture references and feels very true to its milieu. Metzler displays an almost painfully acute ear for the nuances of new parenthood as well as the awkward social situations adults find themselves in as they try to make new friends.
“It’s a really beautiful play about friendship, and how awkward and difficult that can be,” Fauteux Jacques says.
That part comes straight from Metzler’s experience.
“You’re approaching people in the coffee shop, with a baby, like: Do you want to come to my house? I’ll make a banana bread,” she says.
The play was also inspired by Metzler's time in the class-stratified world of Port Washington on Long Island, where one neighborhood of palatial estates looks straight down a bluff at a working-class neighborhood primarily composed of rental units.
Metzler’s household could withstand the loss of one income when she stayed home for her daughter’s first two years. But the humble duplex she and her husband rented was at the bottom end of that cliff-side view. The gap between those two worlds — and the fascination of staring from one to the other — informs the play.
“I remember the feeling the first time I saw my house from one of the bluffs and could look into my backyard,” she says. “It dawned on me: These people can all see us. I wonder what they see.”
Jeremy D. Goodwin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jeremydgoodwin.
CRY IT OUT
Presented by Apollinaire Theatre Company. At Chelsea Theatre Works, Chelsea, Dec. 20-Jan. 19. Tickets $30, 617-887-2336, www.apollinairetheatre.com