The audience at Manhattan Theater Club's new play "The Madrid" could pass for a TB ward so much does it cough.
Sadly, the cause of the hacking is the play the audience is watching, Liz Flahive's new comedy-drama, "The Madrid." Running two hours fifteen minutes with an intermission, the show is by turns tedious, implausible, unfunny and shallow. Its characters are at best two-dimensional, its portrait of a failed marriage is largely unexamined, its story is nonsensical, and its ending is unsatisfying.
Moreover, set as it is in a nameless city over an uncertain stretch of weeks or months, it lacks any specificity. Oh, and it's hard to connect to or care about almost any of the characters.
Aside from that it's one of the best new plays in years.
What's most troubling though is the waste of acting talent. Among the cast members in this inert and ill-conceived show are Edie Falco, Frances Sternhagen and Christopher Evan Welch.
To their credit, all three manage to show their skills, overcoming director Leigh Silverman's approach to making the drama seem more substantive than it is: encouraging the other players to speak as slowly as possible as a means of intimating some depth and substance absent from the script.
The story revolves around a kindergarten teacher named Martha (Falco) who decides to skip out on her nearly grown up daughter (Phoebe Strole) and her good-natured husband (John Ellison Conlee). The audience never is told what exactly was wrong with her spouse that Martha abandons him.
Nor is an explanation provided as to why she chooses to hide out in a sleazy, run-down month-to-month rental apartment in a bad section of town at a time of life when most real teachers are waiting to make the age at which their guaranteed pension allotments commence. The best explanation that the script can provide is to have Martha put up a poster of a young Jane Fonda on her apartment's otherwise unadorned walls.
The play does not, however, bother to explain why a poster of a plastic surgery-addicted movie star who successively married a film director, a politician and a corporate magnate while raking in the millions as a fitness guru and actress would relate to the goal of dropping out of society and living without a bank account.
Nor does the show offer consistent characterization or credible motives to its other performers. Thus, Strole's otherwise noble daughter at one point accepts an inexplicable bribe offer, and Sternahgen's part morphs from a crotchety old woman with all her wits about her to a doddering fool in the space of a few weeks (or is it months?).
Flahive, who writes for the TV drama "Nurse Jackie", is just 33 years old, and she may be capable of a far better play. If she's going to continue to be produced, we can only hope so.
In the meantime, we must simply wish that the show's talented cast is put to better use -- although it's hard to imagine that they could be put to worse.
The Madrid runs through April 21 at City Center’s Stage 1, 131 W 55th St in New York. For tickets or information, call 212-581-1212 or visit http://www.manhattantheatreclub.com/production/madrid