Wild hearts beat in ordinary people -- in responsible mothers with adoring husbands, cozy homes and nurturing jobs that require more than punching a clock.
Just how destabilizing that wildness can be is the drive behind "The Madrid," the quiet, deceptively diffuse but emotionally generous tragicomedy that stars Edie Falco as Martha, a woman on the run from her nice Chicago life.
Falco, with her bone-honest credibility, has made us root for such ethically ambiguous women as the complicit wife of Tony Soprano and the healer with a reckless streak in "Nurse Jackie." She does it again, with typical lack of artifice, in one of her always-satisfying returns to the stage.
Playwright Liz Flahive, a producer of "Nurse Jackie," clearly has a feel for Falco's ability to seem totally frank while keeping a little something mysterious in reserve. We first meet Martha as a bemused teacher of kindergartners. She puts a child (the enchantingly unnerving Brooke Ashley Laine) into her teacher chair and says, "I'll be right back." She never returns.
Back at her once-homespun living room, devastated loved ones begin gathering furniture for a yard sale. Mostly, we see the damage through Sarah (Phoebe Strole), her college-graduate daughter, now living with her grieving father (John Ellison Conlee), a comfortable bear who secretly calls the home phone to hear his wife's voice on the answering machine.
But Martha is not the only person churning with secrets. Flahive and director Leigh Silverman give us scenes with the neighbors and relatives that, cumulatively, turn annoying streaks of apparent zaniness into a larger, sadder picture of everyday life's disappointments.
Frances Sternhagen is wry and shrewd as Martha's widowed mother, a controlling woman treated as flighty and mentally fragile, but who understands at least as much as anyone about the wrong turns in her daughter's life.
Christopher Evan Welch, the concerned neighbor, gives us enough sweetness to make his transgressions less creepy. (See more in Theater Buzz, below.) Heidi Schreck, as his overweening wife, uncovers a surprising compassion about her husband. Descriptions of their son's rare growth disease seem absurd until we meet the kid, played with painful self-awareness by Seth Clayton.
Most of all, there is Falco's Martha, who moves by jutting her head into life while her slumping body hangs back. The place she runs to find freedom is not in Spain but a nearby rundown apartment. In this mild-mannered but unpredictable play, that is even more exotic.
WHAT "The Madrid"
WHERE Manhattan Theatre Club, 131 W. 55th St., Manhattan
INFO $90; 212-581-1212; nycitycenter.org.
BOTTOM LINE Falco bone-honest in emotionally generous tragicomedy