We gave it a B
Imagine Elmer Rice’s Street Scene with a little stank on it, or—for the more modern palette—Lanford Wilson taking on Rent, and you’d come close to approximating Lisa D’Amour’s Airline Highway, currently occupying Manhattan Theatre Club’s Friedman Theatre on Broadway, direct from its winter run at Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago.
Airline tells the tale of a group of scrappers at the Hummingbird, a squalid motel in New Orleans–post-Katrina–in which its various inhabitants and pop-ins are paying tribute to strip-club impresario Miss Ruby (Judith Roberts), with a ‘funeral’ scheduled to celebrate her life, due to end at any minute. Among the Hummingbird-ers are Krista (Caroline Neff), a stripper smarting from the reappearance of her ex-lover, known affectionately to the locals as Bait Boy (Joe Tippett). BB, now known as ‘Greg’, presently takes up with older women, one of whom has a teenage daughter (Carolyn Braver) he’s brought to the shindig, who wants nothing more than to profile them for a school project. There’s also Sissy Na Na (K. Todd Freeman), the sage, side-eyed transsexual den mother, Wayne (Scott Jaeck), the good-hearted, dirty-joke-telling manager on duty, and aging streetwalker Tanya (Julie White, late of Nurse Jackie), a sweet but hard-luck soul valiantly trying to beat addiction.
D’Amour’s writing can be incredibly on-the-nose. (“You are not going to start crying and listing the names of the 3 children you gave away between the ages of 18 and 32”, says one character, who may as well be named Exposition.) But her affection and lack of judgment for the seedy characters within is truly felt. Their aimlessness might translate literally to some audiences (not all that much actually happens in the show’s two-plus hours), while the refreshing lack of melodrama might entice others.
Director Joe Mantello (Wicked) has wisely retained most of his first-rate Steppenwolf cast (the wonderful White–in a terrific change-of-pace role–is one of the few newbies), who all wear their characters’ commitment like a bright assortment of Mardi Gras beads, all on Scott Pask’s impressively ravaged no-tell motel set. They make Airline Highway more than worth a one-night stay. B