Liz Flahive, a producer and writer on the hit Showtime series “Nurse Jackie,” wrote “The Madrid,” a dull domestic drama about a middle-aged woman who inexplicably walks out on her family. Edie Falco, the star of “Nurse Jackie,” stars. Leigh Silverman, who directs, also helmed the scribe’s first, prize-winning play, “From Up Here.” MTC, which commissioned the show, also bankrolled “From Up Here.” If the commodity were stocks and bonds instead of a stage production, the participants might be up for insider trading. In the theater, that’s just the cozy way that dull plays get on.
Not even Falco, with her great talent for penetrating the living soul of a character, can squeeze much juice out of Martha, a 40-something schoolteacher who, one fine day, walks away from her life without a word of explanation to her husband John (John Ellison Conlee, playing easy to like), daughter Sarah (given an extremely sympathetic reading by Phoebe Strole), or mother Rose (the spirited Frances Sternhagen, always a safe port in a storm).
Falco does make a meal, however, of a terrific first scene in which Martha is pretty much alone on stage talking to her kindergarten class (adorably repped here by a single moppet played by Brooke Ashley Laine). Many lengthy scenes later, Martha will flatly state that she suddenly realized she just wasn’t cut out to care for anyone’s children, including her own. But you can actually see that moment of enlightenment dawning here, in the rapt expression that spreads over Falco’s face as she takes a lesson from the children’s drawings of their families.
After that transcendent moment, Martha retreats into her own head — actually, into a dingy room in the Madrid, a run-down apartment building on a gritty street with a barroom on the corner. Like her unlived-in living room at home, Martha’s depressing studio is an ungainly playing space. But set designer David Zinn gets the important details right: no phone, no electronic devices, but a beanbag chair, a big old boom box, a chunky TV set with foil-wrapped rabbit-ear antenna — and a perfectly hideous turquoise futon.
Helmer Silverman actually has a knack for using awkward playing spaces to reflect awkward character relationships. That’s the impression we get when Martha succeeds in getting Sarah to visit her at the Madrid. Martha seems to be making an earnest if clumsy effort to get to know her estranged daughter, to show her something about herself that she can’t articulate. Flahive even floats the suggestion that if mother and daughter were to drop all their baggage and make a fresh start in a new setting, they might forge a closer, healthier bond.
Not gonna happen — not while the characters refuse to budge from their initial positions. When she isn’t badgering her mother to move back home, Sarah keeps stubbornly insisting that her mother give her a straight answer about why she moved out in the first place. Husband John gets stuck on magical thinking: maybe if he had a tag sale and tossed in the whole house, his wife would return to their decontaminated marriage. Mother Rose thinks that if she keeps hurting herself, her daughter will eventually fly to her side.
Martha is having none of it. Falco keeps smiling that lovely, enigmatic smile of hers, but the blunt fact of the matter is that Martha ain’t talking. There are hints that everyone is finding sub-textual meaning in the meandering dialogue, an impression that Silverman sustains by directing at a ponderous pace with plenty of Pinteresque pauses. But in the end, you just want someone to speak up and say something interesting.
New York City Center; 300 seats; $90 top
A Manhattan Theater Club presentation of a play in two acts by Liz Flahive. Directed by Leigh Silverman.
Sets, David Zinn; costumes, Emily Rebholz; lighting, Jeff Croiter; sound, Jill BC DuBoff; original music, Tom Kitt; production stage manager, Martha Donaldson. Opened Feb. 26, 2013. Reviewed Feb. 21. Running time: TWO HOURS, 15 MIN.
Martha — Edie Falco
Sarah — Phoebe Strole
Becca — Heidi Shreck
Danny — Christopher Evan Welch
John — John Ellison Conlee
Rose — Frances Sternhagen
With Brooke Ashley Laine, Seth Clayton.