I saw these two plays about women in crisis, performed in adjacent theaters in the basement of the New York City Center, on the same day. Seeing these works back to back demonstrated the importance of a mastery of the crafts of playwriting and directing. Leigh Silverman's droopy production of Liz Flahive's static THE MADRID emphasized the play's faults: too many unnecessary characters, a lack of any forward momentum. Gaye Taylor Upchurch's simple, effective production of Laura Marks's BETHANY gave the play the proper tempo and did not shirk the play's use of good old-fashioned melodrama. Both plays were episodic -- does no one know how to write a long act anymore (playwriting students should be force fed Ibsen, Williams and Albee)? At least BETHANY had a sense of forward momentum.
THE MADRID tells the story of Martha, a wife, mother and nursery school teacher who walks off of the job and disappears, leaving a baffled, loving husband, a devoted twenty-year-old daughter and an aging, needy mother. Martha does manage to re-establish contact with the daughter, though she bribes her ($10,000) to keep her whereabouts secret. We later find that Martha has disappeared before. Home and responsibility have always been traps for her. I'm not sure there was ever an interesting full-length play in THE MADRID, but the major problem is that Flahive, a television writer and producer, seems to see her scenes as discreet episodes, rather than segments of a coherent narrative. There's no sense of pace or direction. There are long scenes with characters who are tangential, like an overgrown teenage boy whose knees lock up on him and the boys' parents who are in a troubled relationship. Yes, Flahive's point, such as it is, is that everybody's got problems. OK, but we don't need to see everybody. THE MADRID is like a soap opera, throwing in lots of characters to maintain the audience's interest, but not focussing enough on anyone. The play's problems are emphasized by the direction and acting. I kept wanting to scream, like George Abbott, "Faster. Louder." Characters spoke as if there was a microphone overhead and Edie Falco, an actress I love on television, did her usual range of facial expressions, but barely acted below the neck. Heidi Schreck, who played her daughter (really the focal role), was good, but this is the role that needed a star turn. The only real standouts in the cast were Seth Clayton, who played the teenage boy and, of course, the magnificent veteran Frances Sternhagen, who still lights up a stage. The rest of the characters were ciphers, but that was more the playwright's fault than the actors'. Director Leigh Silverman made the mistake of insisting on too much scenery, so what little momentum the play had was destroyed by long, elaborate scene changes.
BETHANY is another mother-daughter play, except that we never see the five-year-old girl who gives the play its title. Crystal's daughter was taken away by social services when the police discovered that they had been living in Crystal's car. Now Crystal (America Ferrara) will do anything to get her daughter back. She has gotten a commission-only job at a Saturn dealership in the last weeks of the life of that particular brand of automobile and she has broken into an uninhabited home in a housing development that has been emptied out by the real estate crash. Unfortunately, the house she decides she is going to live in is already occupied by a psychotic veteran (Tobias Segal). The lengths to which Crystal will go remind one of nineteenth-century potboilers like Victorien Sardou's TOSCA (later turned into the Puccini classic). There's a tormented but tough heroine who's a bit of an actress, a Scarpia-like lecher and a demented Cavarodossi. Will Crystal go to bed with a manipulative potential customer to sell a car? How will she deal with her psychotic housemate when he goes off the deep end? There is lots of melodrama here, but the play is so well written, directed and acted (everyone is good, but Ferrara and Segal are terrific) that you happily go along for the ride. Marks is commenting on the damage that American foreign and economic policy has wrought on a variety of Americans, but like Lisa D'Amour's DETROIT, she knows how to make her commentary amusing, even scary. The men are creeps in good feminist fashion. If her ideas aren't particularly profound, at least, unlike Liz Flahive, Laura Marks has mastered the craft of playwriting.
THE MADRID by Liz Flahive, directed by Leigh Silverman. Manhattan Theatre Club at City Center Stage 1. February 16, 2013.
BETHANY by Laura Marks, directed by Gaye Taylor Upchurch. Women's Theatre Project at City Center Stage 2. February 16, 2013.