Playwright Liz Flahive and director Leigh Silverman owe Edie Falco a debt for starring in their new play, the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Off Broadway presentation of The Madrid. The Nurse Jackie and Sopranos actress instantly elevates what could be just another wayward-character drama into something that feels moored in a great performance, even if the show itself is somewhat adrift. Thanks to her skill, Falco manages to anchor the piece on her thoroughly unlikable character, Martha, a kindergarten teacher who abandons her job as well as her family without so much as a note of explanation.
The two-act story follows Falco’s Martha after she leaves her family and slowly rebuilds her relationship with Sarah (Phoebe Strole), who recently graduated from college. The show spends its two hours trying to piece together what pushed Martha to leave her home in suburban Chicago and head to her new city apartment, in a building called the Madrid. Any real answers are hard to extrapolate from the material. Instead, what come through are confusion, reality, and — thankfully — humor. Laughs are woven throughout the piece — never huge hoots, but a constant flow of giggles that reflects real life. Sex and the City alum Frances Sternhagen draws more than her share as Martha’s no-nonsense mother, Rose. There are also commendable performances from Strole, John Ellison Conlee (as Martha’s abandoned husband), and Heidi Schreck (as the family’s down-the-street neighbor, Becca).
The bewilderment around Martha’s impulses is largely what makes the show both interesting and frustrating. The audience needs to understand Martha’s motivations — even if they’re terrible — but Flahive declines to dig too deeply into her heroine’s longing for escape. Despite some genuine dialogue and a steady stream of half-excuses, it remains unclear why she did what she did. Granted, Flahive may be intending to echo real life, which is filled with characters as chaotic and unknowable as Martha. But in the theater, there’s a lot less tolerance for so much narrative murkiness. B?
(Tickets: nycitycenter.org or 212-581-1212)