Review by Michael Bracken
Somewhere on this planet there is perhaps a place where a group of strippers, whores, transsexuals, dirty old men, and assorted low-lifes live in harmony and squalor, secure in the knowledge that, although unrelated by blood, they are joined in a community of kinship bound by mutual concern and caring. That place is not New Orleans’s Hummingbird Motel, the setting for Lisa D’Amour’s Airline Highway at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, although the playwright would have us believe it is.
The residents of the Hummingbird talk about family a lot, and they do in fact take care of each other, including ministering to the fading Miss Ruby, whose “funeral” they celebrate, per her request, while she’s still alive. But their connections to each other are inauthentic, mostly because their own authenticity is suspect. These are characters with a capital “C,” born of the gritty quixotic notion that even misfits can create a nurturing and supportive home together as long as they’re offbeat and colorful enough.
In fairness, D’Amour’s female characters, while not always fully realized, at least have some blood cursing through their veins. Pill-addicted Tanya, (Julie White), a proverbial hooker with a heart of gold, is also a bit of a drill sergeant marshalling the funereal festivities. Krista (Caroline Neff), a stripper who for some reason can’t afford a room, is obsessed with her former lover Bait Boy (Joe Tippett), who now lives in Atlanta but is back for the urban hoe-down. While her self-destructive desire for him is her only defining characteristic, its various incarnations give her a degree of shading. Bait Boy, on the other hand, is little more than a particularly unfocused Angry Young Man.
Bait Boy’s step-daughter, Zoe (Carolyn Braver), is an upscale sixteen-year-old girl flirting with womanhood. A stranger in a strange land, she soaks up the exoticism of the Hummingbird’s foreign subculture, intrigued, beguiled, and not quite sure how to process it.
And then there’s Miss Ruby herself, regally portrayed by the rich-voiced Judith Roberts. Her unlikely appearance – carried in her hospital bed from her room to the parking lot – is brief but also the highlight of the play. Her pronouncements are insightful, her full voice loving and authoritative. She is, by far, the most truly alive presence on the stage; Roberts is elegant in the roll. Just one problem: she hardly seems like someone about to give up the ghost in the next few years, let alone days.
On the men’s side, only Sissy Na Na (K. Todd Freeman), a transvestite, seems genuine. Even hotel manager Wayne (Scott Jaeck), who talks a lot about himself, parcels out information, not revelation.
Men and women share a constant unspoken refrain: “Look at me! Aren’t I cute in a down and dirty way?” This is the play’s downfall, its grungy self-consciousness. It’s raunchy romanticism gone awry.
For all its shortcomings Airline Highway is a multicolored slice of life, tonally and physically. Scenic designer Scott Pask captures the essence of a run-down New Orleans motel, seedy and falling apart but dignified by detailed metalwork. As the play proceeds, the parking lot becomes Party Central, adorned with lights, boas, streamers, pompoms, and other festive accoutrements. Director Joe Mantello leans toward the chaotic, no doubt intentionally to highlight the crazy quilt of humanity that populates the stage. People shout a lot at the Hummingbird, and they shout even louder when they’re mad. Occasionally two people shout at the same time and you can understand neither. Hopefully what they’re saying isn’t that important.
Originally mounted by the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, Airline Highway has no central character to speak of. With our attention drawn in multiple directions, getting us to relate to, or care about, anyone as an individual is a real challenge. Unfortunately, playwright D’Amour doesn’t quite rise to the occasion. Her uneasy admixture of high drama and low comedy never gels. Airline Highway just doesn’t take off.
*Photos: Joan Marcus
Through June 14th at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre (261 West 47th Street). www.ManhattanTheatreClub.com. 2 hours 15 minutes.