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The Madrid

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

The Madrid
Edie Falco and Phoebe Strole.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

In most plays, the words "I've worked very hard to get here" would not resonate with wrenching emotional force. But in Liz Flahive's The Madrid, which has just opened at City Center Stage I in a Manhattan Theatre Club production, they're loaded with weight both terrifying and ironic. This is not just because you can see that "here" is a ramshackle studio apartment barely better than a tenement, and that no reasonable person older than 18 would consider landing there a worthwhile accomplishment, but also because the implications of what that work involved are themselves painfully sobering.

Those implications form the spine of Flahive's writing here, and whether you'll respond to The Madrid (the title refers to the pink, Spanish-influenced building containing that sub-budget apartment) depends entirely on whether you consider them worthy of extended exploration.

The short version of the story is that Martha, a kindergarten teacher in her late 40s, called home to tell her husband and daughter she was leaving school one day, and then vanished entirely, the culminating event of decades of aspiration that we all may fantasize about but few of us can actually imagine doing. So when Martha (a spunkily unaffected Edie Falco) touts the effort she expended to make her dream a reality, she means it. And that sends unsettling ripples through the existences of not just her, her husband John (John Ellison Conlee), and daughter Sarah (Phoebe Strole), the only person she trusts enough to reveal herself and her new home to, but also through the play itself.

Ultimately, Flahive asks you to understand, if not necessarily sympathize with, the impulses of a woman who's willing to scrimp and save for years so she's financially able to abandon her family and live a life completely untethered by traditional social norms. That's something not everyone can, or will be willing to, do.

But the real thrust of the work, and the source of its most compelling content, is the question of obligation that bubbles beneath everything else. Martha's departure creates a vacuum that no one else is up to the challenge of filling. John is obsessed with finding Martha, to the point that he's basically lost his ability to function normally he's selling off all the contents of their home, and every time he sees a taxi or hears a phone ring he's sure it's her. Sarah has to step up to take care of her grandmother, Rose (Frances Sternhagen), who's desperate to locate the daughter to whom she's still committed but becoming increasingly unable to drive herself around. Martha's friend Becca (Heidi Schreck), is having similar problems with her own son Dylan (Seth Clayton), who's suffering from medical growing pains, and her husband Danny, whom she has reason to believe may walk out on her at any moment.

This chain reaction of collisions gives the two-hour-plus evening an appealing, almost somber texture, though it isn't enough to make up for the blithe and too often unsatisfying execution. Flahive proved with her last outing at MTC, From Up Here (in 2008), that she excels at probing the pervasive ordinariness of everyday life but is prone to confusing one-dimensional quirks for deeper character traits. Her instincts with the latter are considerably more on target here, but they still call undue attention to the head-scratching improbabilities on which she bases far too much of her action. Among them: Martha's out-of-nowhere Bohemian dancing tendencies and second career emceeing open mic night in a downtown bar, her attempting to buy Sarah's silence for $10,000 and Sarah's willingness to be bought, and a climactic furniture sale in which the front yard becomes both a literal living room and a bedroom for reasons best left unexplained.

Leigh Silverman's direction applies to the proceedings a layer of genuine sensitivity, which does soften many of the sharper, less pleasant edges. But unlike From Up Here, which announced its slightly off-kilter predilections early on, The Madrid immediately roots itself in the everyday suffocation of Martha's kindergarten class, making it more difficult to acclimate to the action as it grows increasingly flighty. The overall effect is of a serious drama that thinks it should be a comedy, and, despite occasional flashes of inspirations, ends up fully working as neither.

Sternhagen is brittle and excellent as Martha's devoted mother, and establishes a cunning contrast to Rose's more inherently selfish daughter. The other supporting performances are generally flatter. Strole and Conlee sort of complement each other she's all stridency and he's head-to-toe despondency but their characters would be more convincing if they were more shaded. The same is true of Schreck, who's overly manic as Becca; and the subdued sense of cluelessness Clayton projects does not energize the single scene in which Dylan appears. Notably strong is Christopher Evan Welch, who's pointedly soothing as the clear-thinking Danny. (Welch is slated to leave the show this week, and will be replaced by Darren Goldstein.)

Only Falco, however, truly succeeds, bridging Flahive's yawning gap between the fanciful and the mundane. Looking equally at home instructing six-year-olds, slumming in Starbucks, or running a talent show, Martha has developed to the point she can be comfortable in almost any situation. But although Falco invests her with a smooth, calm confidence in her initial appearances, she slowly introduces into her natural optimism an innate sadness that you sense could grow into regret if properly nourished. And Falco so loses herself in the character's perverted notion of liberty that you may find yourself, if only temporarily, being attracted by the philosophy of reckless self-investigation she espouses.

That's exactly the quality Martha most needs, and the only thing that strings together for us a play that otherwise seems determined to fall apart. You feel for this woman who's suffered for so long, even if you don't agree with her solution, and that's enough to keep you interested in whether or not her problems get resolved. But even if you can, however fleetingly, relate to her, it's tough not to find yourself wishing you could better relate to the world Martha has worked so feverishly to escape.


The Madrid
Through April 21
New York City Center Stage I, 131 West 55th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: www.nycitycenter.org