Suppose you wrote a new play. It’s only your second, but it’s got a great part for an actress who can win over the audience to a character who can be unsympathetic, someone who can convey existential malaise at the same time as tough-day-at-work frustration.
Now suppose that when you’re not working on your plays, you write for a TV show. This show just happens to star, as the title character, an actress who has turned a mob wife and a Vicodin-addicted nurse into audience darlings and who makes a point of returning to her New York theater roots every chance she gets.
This should make for the easiest casting process in the world, right? Just tap her on the shoulder with one hand while holding the script in the other?
“Absolutely not,” said Liz Flahive, whose day job is as a producer of the Showtime medical comedy “Nurse Jackie,” which stars one Edie Falco. “That’s not how I would feel comfortable. It just wouldn’t be good manners.”
Sitting next to Ms. Flahive in a lounge at City Center, where Manhattan Theater Club is staging the play, Ms. Falco said, “I wish you had.”
Through far more circuitous means the two women are spending their “Nurse Jackie” hiatus working on Ms. Flahive’s new piece, “The Madrid,” which is in previews and opens on Feb. 26. “To think that I would have dibs on a new play — that doesn’t happen often,” said Ms. Falco, the only actress to win Emmy Awards for starring in both a comedy (“Nurse Jackie”) and a drama (“The Sopranos”). “I get offered them, but only after other people turn them down.”
Ms. Falco plays Martha, a kindergarten teacher who one impulsive day goes AWOL on her students and her family. This happens in the first scene of “The Madrid,” which follows her friends and loved ones — particularly her 22-year-old daughter, Sarah (Phoebe Strole) — preparing for a short- and long-term life without Martha. (The title refers to the dingy apartment building where Martha sets up shop.)
“It feels like a play about a maternal identity crisis, albeit from the daughter’s point of view,” said Ms. Flahive, 33. She began writing the play when she was six months pregnant with her son, now 2. “I haven’t met a mother who hasn’t wanted to disappear for a while,” she said.
Her desire to escape from the all-consuming demands of parenthood was strictly predictive at that point. What about Ms. Falco, 49, who herself has two young children? “Well, I can’t speak for every mom, but …,” she said with a slightly sheepish grin. “I mean, parenthood is not a hobby. Your life is basically sucked from you.”
“Nurse Jackie,” which is produced in New York City, has an impressive roster of stage talent on both sides of the klieg lights: Anna Deavere Smith and Bobby Cannavale have appeared with Ms. Falco, and Rajiv Joseph (“Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,” this spring’s “North Pool”) was among Ms. Flahive’s fellow writers. So Richie Jackson, Ms. Falco’s manager and the show’s executive producer, wasn’t surprised to see Ms. Flahive plugging away on a play during her downtime. He brought her on to the “Nurse Jackie” crew after seeing her first play, the 2008 domestic drama “From Up Here.”
“I would jokingly say to her now and then, ‘How’s the play coming along?’ ” Mr. Jackson said. “One day she sent me an e-mail and said, ‘Here it is.’ It was extraordinary, and I sent it on to Edie without telling Liz. I wanted her to be able to be honest without worrying about Liz’s feelings.”
He’s not the only one to take some credit for the pairing. Mandy Greenfield, director of artistic operations at Manhattan Theater Club, co-producer of “From Up Here” and commissioner of “The Madrid,” said, “Edie had been very vocal with us about wanting to create a role in a new play.” After she read “The Madrid” Ms. Falco was the first actress she suggested. “When I mentioned her name to Liz, her face lit up.”
Whoever linked them up, Ms. Flahive maintains that she didn’t write “The Madrid” with Ms. Falco in mind. Given the unpredictable nature of casting, she said, “That’s a recipe for heartbreak.”
Ultimately Ms. Falco, whose “Sopranos” and “Nurse Jackie” hiatuses have been filled with Broadway revivals (“Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune,” “The House of Blue Leaves”) and new work (“This Wide Night”), eagerly signed up to do Ms. Flahive’s play.
The two have four years of shared experience to draw upon. Along the way they have learned to do a lot with a little, a skill that comes in handy on a play in which the main character becomes more of a presence through her absence. “Liz has an incredible ability to get to an emotion with very few words,” Mr. Jackson said, “which makes her a perfect writer for Edie.”
The more relaxed pace of “Madrid” rehearsals was also a blessing for both women. “You have the luxury of time in a play,” Ms. Falco said, particularly when it comes to revisiting a certain scene or moment. “In TV I feel horrible for the writers. There’s just no time.”
What there is plenty of in television is money, which may explain why so many playwrights have dabbled, or more, in that world. Among Ms. Flahive’s close friends are the playwrights Kim Rosenstock (“Tigers Be Still”) and Steven Levenson (this spring’s “Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin” and “Core Values”). They are working on the series “New Girl” (Ms. Rosenstock) and “Vegas” (Mr. Levenson).
“The money certainly can be very enticing, and you have to be clear that that’s not what’s driving you,” Ms. Falco said, at which point Ms. Flahive interjected, “But the money can also put you on a plane to a workshop of your play.”
New episodes of “Nurse Jackie” will begin April 14, and the fate of the show beyond this season, its fifth, remains uncertain. While Ms. Falco has adopted a Zenlike serenity over her career moves — “My little plans for myself are never as good as what shows up” — at least one aspect of Ms. Flahive’s future is clearer. It appears that writing “The Madrid” has quenched any pangs of maternal wanderlust.
“I would like to take a beat and hang out with my boy,” she said.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: February 24, 2013
An article last Sunday about the play “The Madrid,” which stars Edie Falco, misstated Mandy Greenfield’s title at Manhattan Theater Club, which is staging the drama. She is artistic producer, not director of artistic operations. Because of incorrect information from a publicist, the article also misstated the relationship of Liz Flahive, who wrote “The Madrid,” with the Showtime medical comedy “Nurse Jackie.” She is a producer of the show, which also stars Ms. Falco, not its executive story editor.