Playwright Daniel Goldfarb has a nearly impossible request. He wants you to feel bad for yuppie Brooklynites with kids. They don't get enough sex or sleep. They stress about cashmere jumpers and organic Parisian teething toys. They fear their 11-month-old will never stop crying long enough to let them watch an uninterrupted hour of America's Next Top Model (but they don't want other people knowing that they actually enjoy Top Model). And they agonize over whether their $300-per-hour child therapist likes them. He also wants you to pity Brooklynites without children, who worry that their careers aren't good enough to justify not having a family. Who burn their tongues on the rose-scented toasted nuts recipe they got from the Union Square Cafe to fill that childless void. Who don't travel nearly as much as you'd think they do. And who feel like ''a facsimile of what we used to be.'' (I wish I was making that quote up, but I'm not.) P.S. They don't have much sex either.
Goldfarb, who is primarily known for plays about Jewish assimilation, makes his case in Cradle and All, an Off Broadway drama about a night in the lives of two couples residing next door to each other in an upscale Brooklyn Heights apartment building, one with child and one without. The same actors, Maria Dizzia and Greg Keller, portray both pairs as they bicker and weep over one subject: babies. Act I, ''Infantry,'' is dedicated to Claire and Luke, an unmarried, cosmopolitan duo (she's an aging actress, he's an antiques dealer) celebrating a financial windfall. For Luke, the new money means that they can buy even nicer stuff, but Claire takes it as a sign that they can afford to get pregnant. World War III ensues. Act II, ''The Extinction Method,'' follows Annie (a recruiter on extended maternity leave) and Nate (an unemployed Yale-trained actor, who'd spent seven years on a medical drama) as they struggle to get their infant daughter to sleep by letting her ''cry-it-out'' while staying in constant IM contact with their child psychologist. And it's about five minutes into this half based on Goldfarb and his wife's actual experience using the ''Extinction Method'' on their own baby that the nearly impossible does happen: You feel for them.
Goldfarb deserves some of the credit, as does the recorded noise of the crying baby (whose heart doesn't break at that sound?). But most of the praise belongs to Dizzia. Excellent in the first act as a beautiful but depressed has-been who must beg her younger boyfriend to impregnate her (he won't), the actress is even more affecting later as bedraggled, sleep-deprived Annie. Dizzia, a Tony nominee last year for In the Next Room, radiates brains and kindness even when she's laughing one moment and throwing knickknacks the next. You trust Annie's a good mother who's just having a terrible time of it. What's unclear is Goldfarb's message: Though he seems to decry the emptiness of living without kids, he waffles on whether the pains of parenting are worth it in the end. However, stainless-steel appliances and French doors definitely ease the burden. B
(Tickets: nycitycenter.org or 212-581-1212)