Edie Falco has a rare gift an actress: to make female characters whose actions are often questionable, if not downright abhorrent, nonetheless seem vulnerable and sympathetic. That singular quality proves to be the foundation of The Madrid, the uneven new play by Liz Flahive, one of the producers of Falco's hit series Nurse Jackie, now at Manhattan Theatre Club-City Center. While the work is full of heart, ambition, and intelligence, its characters don't always behave in believable ways, and Flahive's preference for short scenes makes for a choppy rhythm that director Leigh Silverman cannot always successfully navigate.
As fans of Nurse Jackie will quickly note, Falco's character, Martha, a 48-year-old mother and schoolteacher who suddenly abandons her family, often seems like a variation on the self-centered Jackie Peyton (minus the constant swearing and drug addiction). Shortly after the play begins, Martha runs off without a word to anyone, leaving her 22-year-old daughter Sarah (Phoebe Strole) to help take care of her slightly befuddled if often sanguine father John (John Ellison Conlee) and her flinty grandmother Rose (Frances Sternhagen), who is having periodic trouble with both her memory and driving ability.
However, Martha suddenly reappears months later at the suburban Starbucks where Sarah is working with an unwelcome birthday gift and even more unwelcome news: she's moved to a crummy, dorm-like apartment in a building called The Madrid in nearby Chicago. While Martha wants to let her daughter back in her life (on her own terms) she makes Sarah swear not to tell John, Rose, or concerned neighbors Becca and Danny (Heidi Schreck and Christopher Evan Welch).
A large problem with The Madrid is that we never truly believe Sarah will keep the silence imposed on her by her mother – a deal eventually sweetened by a large wad of cash. While it's clear that Sarah is anxious for some of the "quality time" she ends up spending with Martha, their meetings are also tinged with so much guilt and ambivalence that you're sure Sarah will run home and spill the beans after every encounter, especially given her strong loyalty to her father. When Flahive eventually lets us in on key pieces of the family history that answer some important questions about Martha's behavior – and which also helps explain John and Rose's sometimes puzzling attitudes towards Martha's disappearance -- these revelations do little to illuminate Sarah's decision to keep her mother's existence a secret.
Flahive also spends too much time focusing on the travails of intrusive neighbors Becca and Danny, even introducing a completely unnecessary subplot about their teenage son Dylan (a very fine Seth Clayton), who is suffering from a disease that causes him to grow too fast. Schreck is particularly impressive in a scene where she tells Sarah about Danny's fixation on younger women, and Welch (who is leaving the production this week, to be replaced by Darren Goldstein) is a consistent pleasure to watch, but these characters would seem more relevant if The Madrid was a pilot for a television series rather than a two-hour play.Fortunately, Falco plants herself completely inside Martha, never striking a false note, and displaying her customary lack of physical vanity. The moments when she dances with abandon in her new apartment or sings (very badly) at an open-mic night in a seedy bar could come off as merely "acting" in lesser hands, but instead they feel like true expressions of a woman who is finally free to be the person she wants to be, without having to fulfill the expectations of her family and friends.
Conversely, Strole doesn't help matters with a performance that could use a lot more emotional variation. While she captures the writer's concept of a young woman trying to be more adult than she really is, Strole tends to display only two attitudes: a superficial toughness or a simple sweetness. Given that Sarah is truly the show's principal character, we want to feel more of her inner turmoil.
Conlee isn't given as much to do as one might expect, but he is consistently believable, especially in the constant protectiveness he shows towards Sarah. And, not surprisingly, Sternhagen (a two-time Tony Award winner) makes the most of her role, displaying crackerjack timing in her delivery of Rose's often sarcastic comments, while adding a needed layer of pathos as we come to realize the pain she feels over being abandoned by her daughter. David Zinn's seemingly simple set, which begins with the family's rather unattractive living room, eventually morphs into numerous locations, including Martha's apartment and a local bar, before transforming into one final and stunning location that reemphasizes the ultimate message of The Madrid: that change, although not always welcome or expected, is part of every family's journey.