'Airline Highway': Theater Review

Joan Marcus
K. Todd Freeman, Julie White, Judith Roberts and Scott Jaeck in 'Airline Highway'
Road to nowhere

Lisa D'Amour's colorful mosaic of a community of down-and-outliers living in a cheap motel on the edge of New Orleans comes to Broadway via Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company.

In her terrific 2010 play, Detroit, Lisa D'Amour showed gimlet-eyed observation, a spiky sense of humor and a vivid feel for a place and people being left behind by the American Dream. In Airline Highway, she turns to a larger pocket of luckless folks much lower down the economic ladder, this time on the outskirts of post-Katrina New Orleans. But despite being given a dynamic production with a highly capable cast, this rambling character-driven piece lacks the earlier work's drive and clarity of purpose. While it's a vividly populated canvas, the playwright doesn't do anything much of interest with it.

The ensemble in Joe Mantello's production, which comes to Broadway from Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company, play characters who either live or congregate at the Hummingbird Motel, a shabby budget dive on the stretch of road connecting the Big Easy to Baton Rouge. Seen from the car park, where the inaction unfolds, this dump is designed with battered realism by Scott Pask, and bathed by Japhy Weideman's lights in shades that run from soupy dusk through the hangover glaze of morning.

While the Louisiana setting suggests Tennessee Williams, D'Amour’s inspiration appears to be the disenchanted lowlife portraits of Lanford Wilson's plays, particularly The Hot L Baltimore and Balm in Gilead, both of which have been staged by Steppenwolf, the latter in a celebrated production directed by John Malkovich. But as soulful, alive and frequently funny as D'Amour's characters are, there's also a soggy veil of nostalgia over this gallery of beautiful losers — hookers, strippers, bartenders, bouncers, drug addicts, dealers, poets and street philosophers. The depiction of these outsiders, with their gritty nobility and purity of heart that remain unseen beyond their community, seems simplistic almost to the point of quaintness.

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The folks who hang at the Hummingbird are a far cry from the tourists flocking to the city for Jazz Fest, with its corporate sponsorship and pricey merchandise. Their partying runs more to Cheetos and cheap beer served off the hood of a wrecked car. When former resident Bait Boy (Joe Tippett) returns for a special occasion, bearing a tray of gourmet sandwiches from Whole Foods, the offering is received almost as an affront.

Exhausted low-rent prostitute Tanya (Julie White) and self-described "super-tranny" Sissy Na Na (K. Todd Freeman) are busy organizing a "living funeral" for Miss Ruby (Judith Roberts), a famed former Bourbon Street burlesque dancer, now in her eighties, who is a surrogate mother to the Hummingbird denizens. That group includes temporarily homeless stripper Krista (Caroline Neff); handyman Terry (Tim Edward Rhoze), who quietly carries a torch for her; garrulous hotel manager Wayne (Scott Jaeck); and beatnik throwback Francis (Ken Marks). Miss Ruby has apparently requested a funeral before she dies so she can hear people's tributes to her, but her frail condition means she can put in an appearance only as it's winding down.

Bait Boy has hooked himself an older woman with money in Atlanta and is improbably accompanied by her teenage daughter, Zoe (Carolyn Braver). Armed with tablet and smart phone, she starts collecting information for a high school sociology project on "subcultures." That sends Sissy Na Na's eyebrows rocketing way up under her wig, but it gets people talking nonetheless, as Zoe learns to put down her devices and actually listen. However, this is really just a clumsy way for the playwright to extract her characters' back-stories.

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As the booze flows and the party lurches on, they share pieces of their painful pasts and make incantatory affirmations of their defiant place in this fringe world. But while the dialogue is flavorful, with notes of poetry, pathos and even spirituality, D'Amour's intention beyond a heaving snapshot of messy yet mutually nurturing lives remains unclear.

Given the grand tradition of New Orleans as a place where funerals are jazzy celebrations of life, staging such a bacchanal as the play's galvanizing event makes sense, and the wild bursts of singing, dancing and music keep the energy humming. But the circuitous loops of shouty, overlapping dialogue — like a Robert Altman movie without an editor — become exhausting. As a hymn to the resilient spirit of marginalized sinners, this is somewhat prosaic, and its shortage of fully developed conflict means there's little to invest in beyond the pleasure of watching skilled actors create lived-in characters. In a solid ensemble, White, Freeman and Rhoze are particularly good.

Simply by virtue of the fact she has some kind of muddy catharsis, Krista becomes a central figure. Nervous about seeing her ex-lover Bait Boy again, she tries to make out that she's doing well in order to impress him, and when that doesn't work, she angles with sex to pick up where they left off. Bait Boy psychologically still has one foot in his old stomping ground, but his instinct is to keep running. While there might be a poignant drama in their thread, it gets lost amid all the noise and confusion. Nonetheless, Neff has some raw, moving moments, and costumer David Zinn puts her in a red party dress so tacky it breaks your heart.

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To the extent that the play builds toward something it's Miss Ruby’s descent down the stairs on a gurney; the old woman is addled on medication though presented for the occasion in an auburn wig and full stage makeup. When she does find her bearings, she launches into an aria about the sexual self and ecstatic experience, exhorting her family of screwups to seize the freedom granted them by their choice to live beyond structure or convention. Although Roberts delivers the overwritten speech with dignity, it comes out like the ravings of a debauched Auntie Mame on Oxycontin. However, this is probably the closest D'Amour gets to revealing her main theme.

Many in the audience will have lost patience long before then with this disappointing play, which is a perplexing choice for nonprofit company Manhattan Theatre Club's Broadway house.

Cast: Carolyn Braver, K. Todd Freeman, Scott Jaeck, Ken Marks, Caroline Neff, Tim Edward Rhoze, Judith Roberts, Joe Tippett, Julie White, Todd d’Amour, Shannon Eagen, Venida Evans, Joe Forbich, Leslie Hendrix, Sekou Laidlow, Toni Martin

Director: Joe Mantello

Playwright: Lisa D'Amour

Set designer: Scott Pask

Costume designer: David Zinn

Lighting designer: Japhy Weideman

Music & sound designer: Fitz Patton

Fight director: Thomas Schall

Production: Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Presented by Manhattan Theatre Club

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