Fathers disappear. Telephone men fall in love with long distance, traveling salesmen never come home from the road. But our culture quails at the idea that a mother would do such things. When was the last time you saw a poster dunning “Deadbeat Moms”?
That a woman would abandon her husband and child is the daring premise of Liz Flahive’s occasionally affecting and often frustrating comedy drama The Madrid at Manhattan Theatre Club. Martha (Edie Falco), an elementary-school teacher, walks out of her classroom and out of her life. She leaves no note and no forwarding address. She does not appear to have been abused, psychologically or physically. She does not seem unduly unhappy or irrational. She simply leaves.
After this initial scene, Flahive’s script, directed by Leigh Silverman, switches its focus to Martha’s husband, John (John Ellison Conlee), and college-grad daughter, Sarah (Phoebe Strole). John decides to sell every item that reminds him of his wife—including an entire living-room suite. Sarah abandons her ambitious plans to instead take a job at Starbucks and care for her dad and tart grandmother Rose (the delightfully acid Frances Sternhagen). Married neighbors Becca (Heidi Schreck) and Danny (Christopher Evan Welch) offer more complications than support. (Seth Clayton has a winning cameo as their adolescent son.)
When we meet Martha again, we see she has traded comfortable middle-class environs for a fetid apartment (in a building euphemistically named “The Madrid”) and some Jordan almonds. She never properly explains why she left, only that she needed to, a need she has apparently felt for decades. Falco, with her appealing, angular face and earthy amiability, doesn’t ask for our pity and yet the play demands that we have compassion for her. But to empathize with a character we have to understand her, at least in part, and The Madrid renders her actions and motivations opaque.
Maybe this is realistic. After all, most of us without the benefit of weekly psychoanalysis (and probably plenty with it) don’t always understand everything we say and do. So why should we expect fictional characters to be so supremely self-aware? Yet we do expect it. Or we expect playwrights to make that lack of self-awareness meaningful. Likely this speaks more to our own assumptions than to the plays’ faults, but it’s frustrating all the same.
And the play does have other difficulties. Silverman is a perceptive and candid director, but she can’t resolve the script’s tendency to make every scene seem crucially important or to justify why characters behave in distinctly odd ways—as when a couple of them elect to nap in freezing temperatures in the midst of a yard sale. Despite sporadic moments of real generosity and warmth, The Madrid too often leaves us out in the cold.