Talk about a midlife crisis. Martha has been having one of those since her daughter’s birth 22 years ago. Playwright (and producer of Showtime’s Nurse Jackie) Liz Flahive’s dramatic The Madrid, directed by Leigh Silverman at the Manhattan Theatre Club, is a classic tale of a woman gone wild, except that the woman is Tony-nominated and Emmy Award-winning actress Eddie Falco and the “wild” is a dingy pay-by-the-week room in a hotel called The Madrid.
Falco is a kindergarten teacher named Martha who up and leaves her family one day without any sign of where or why she’s gone. Her daughter (Phoebe Strole) is left to take care of her father (John Ellison Conlee), who decides to sell most (if not all) of his wife’s possessions at a yard sale.
The play opens with Falco in her classroom, reading a storybook to her class. She is obviously uncomfortable, seems out of place, and is annoyed at the little girl who is bouncing up and down not a foot away from her. Suddenly an expression reaches Falco’s face. You’re not sure what it is—a mixture of realization and agitation—but one thing is for sure, she has decided to do something.
All her daughter Sarah knows about her mother’s disappearance is that she didn’t take anything with her and there is no way of reaching her. Strole plays the 22-year-old recent college grad with the angst of a teenager in the ‘90s. As responsible as she feels for the care and keeping of both her father and grandmother (the hilarious and wonderful Frances Sternhagen) there is something bothering her. To her family she is a selfless angel, but when she’s alone she smokes weed, curses, and spends an inappropriate amount of time exposing her feelings to their much-older neighbor (Christopher Evan Welch).
Presented as a play about identity crisis and motherhood, The Madrid lacks genuine emotion and conflict. Falco’s character, an easy bid for the mom who’s done everything for her family and now wants a break, comes off as insane. Though Falco’s stage presence is undeniable, Martha’s constant manic smile is unsettling to the point of being nearly impossible to empathize with.
It is later discovered that this isn’t the first time that Martha has tried to run away – there was that time when she left a six-year-old Sarah at a water park and that time when she tried to abandon her husband and newborn child to work at an organic farm. The audience is left wondering: is Martha actually crazy?
It is easy to empathize with John, Martha’s husband, who sits alone in his living room repeatedly calling the house just to hear his wife’s voice on the answering machine. However, the most interesting character is Danny, the older neighbor (married to Heidi Schreck’s character, Becca) with the bad habit of following young women around and talking to them for hours.
Welch is hysterical as the other character suffering from an identity crisis. At first Danny seems to be the “funny guy,” cracking deadpan jokes about Extreme Makeover and explaining that there is no caffeine in a Starbucks frappuccino, but as his character evolves, it is clear that his jokes are masking much deeper pain and frustration. Consequently, there is so much Starbucks paraphernalia in the play that it might as well be a commercial for the chain.
The Madrid is confusing and at times seems meaningless, but the production is saved by several moments of hysterically dark humor, mostly from Sternhagen’s aging grandmother character and from Seth Clayton, the awkward teenager Dylan who suffers from a painful knee condition.
Ultimately, The Madrid is a play about family, forgiveness, and how hard it is to let go of the people you love, summed up perfectly by Falco who sings to Sarah at an open mic: “My honey, I know with the dawn that you will be gone, but tonight you belong to me.”