Airline Highway, Lisa D’Amour’s loving look at the makeshift family of misfits that hang out at a seedy motel along the old Airline Highway in New Orleans, is not a musical, but it is full of music. The characters often break out into song — and the play itself seems a lesson in jazz.
There is a feel of improvisation, although everything is scripted. And, while the individual performers get their moments for solos, the play comes off as a collective composition of overlapping voices. The 16 performers work together so effectively in creating the community that hangs around the Hummingbird Motel, that they surely deserve a Tony Award for great ensemble acting.
But there is no such Tony category, unfortunately, and the literally overlapping voices may require some adjustment for the average theatergoer. Director Joe Mantello (Wicked, Assassins, etc.) works hard to orient us to what approximates Robert Altman’s style of fly-on-the-wall filmmaking minus the camera.
Airline Highway is above all a series of interrelated character portraits, although (switching artistic metaphors here) the playwright tries to put a thin narrative frame around those portraits.
The denizens of the Hummingbird are gathering for the funeral of Miss Ruby (portrayed by Judith Roberts). The former burlesque queen, who has lived at the motel for 25 years, is not actually dead, but she is very ill, and she has asked that they celebrate her life now while she can still witness what people have to say.
“We are gathered here today to honor the angel who looks upon you all with an utterly non judgmental eye — the drunks, the addicts, the ex-addicts, the hos, the super hos, the ex cons, the strippers, the street musicians…” says Sha Na Na (K. Todd Freeman), a trans bartender and karaoke wrangler at the Cat’s Meow on Bourbon Street.
As the moments progress, the individual characters come more into focus. Krista, a stripper (Caroline Neff), is nervous that her former flame is traveling from Atlanta to be at the party. He is Bait Boy – “I go by Greg now” – (Joe Tippett), who is dressed in well-pressed khaki pants and seems now to have his act together, having developed a live-in relationship with a businesswoman who employs him. He has brought her daughter, Zoe (Carolyn Braver), who is 16 years old, but, she says, “that’s like 45 in Google years.” In the least credible development in the play, Zoe has decided to write a school paper on the “subculture” of the Hummingbird, which provides an opportunity for some of the characters to tell her some stories about their lives and the way things used to be.
Then there is Wayne (Scott Jaeck), the long-time laissez-faire manager of the motel, and Tanya (Julie White), a drug addict and a hooker, although Wayne doesn’t want people to call her that, in case the owners of the establishment overhear and he gets in trouble.
It takes a while for us to realize the strength of their relationship, and indeed for us to figure out the various interconnections, which the playwright, director and performers reveal with compassion but also clarity.
In such an ensemble piece, it almost seems wrong to single any specific performers for praise – although it’s worth pointing out that the 2015 Drama Desk Awards today nominated Julie White (Tony winner for The Little Dog Laughed) and K. Todd Freeman, a brave actor who previously stood out for portraying Stepin Fetchit in Fetch Clay, Make Man.
D’Amour, a fifth-generation New Orleans resident, is reportedly the first woman with a new play on Broadway in two years. Plans fell through for the Broadway mounting of a previous play of hers, Detroit, a play I much prefer. But in both plays, she writes about characters who others call losers – people who deserve to be represented on stage.
Airline Highway is on stage at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theater 261 West 47th Street (between Broadway and 8th Avenue) New York NY 10036
Tickets and Details