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Broadway Reviews

Airline Highway

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 23, 2015

Airline Highway by Lisa D'Amour. Directed by Joe Mantello. Scenic design by Scott Pask. Costume design by David Zinn. Lighting design by Japhy Weideman. Original music & sound design by Fitz Patton. Fight Director Thomas Schall. 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 Forbrich, Leslie Hendrix, Sekou Laidlow, Toni Martin.
Theatre: Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street, between Broadway and 8th Avenue
Audience : Children under the age of 4 are not permitted in the theatre.
Schedule: Limited engagement through June 14.
Tues 7 pm, Wed 2:00 pm, Wed 7 pm, Th 8 pm, Fri 8 pm, Sat 2 pm, Sat 8 pm, Sun 2 pm.
Tickets: Telecharge

Julie White and Scott Jaeck
Photo by Joan Marcus

New Orleans without Mardi Gras is like a New York day without traffic, right? So entrenched is the annual celebration in our minds that it and the city in which it's most famous are often all but synonymous, and summon up images of the bead-draped excitement most of us just can't find in our daily lives. But the darker undercurrent to life in the Big Easy was revealed a decade ago when Hurricane Katrina hit the area and caused flooding that wreaked havoc on countless lives, and served as a clarion wake-up call for all those who could too easily forget that real, human lives are at stake there every day.

Lisa D'Amour's new play Airline Highway, which premiered at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company late last year and has just opened at the Samuel J. Friedman, suggests some of them hit the snooze button. Though the action is set in New Orleans, it's not in any of the tony neighborhoods, but on the outskirts of the outskirts, where just scraping by would be considered a good day. And the location at the center of it, the Hummingbird Motel, a historic relic from the 1940s that's seen better times (and, for that matter, better coats of paint), sharply reflects the hopelessness who are forced to live in and about its tattered residences. Or... maybe... does it impart its own special curse upon them?

Either way, these are not people who foresee brighter tomorrow, next week, or next year. Krista (Caroline Neff) is a stripper whose increasing age and weight have made her less employable, and she's no longer able to afford her rent. Terry (Tim Edward Rhoze) is an itinerant handyman who's (barely secretly) loved Krista for years. Francis (Ken Marks) is a getting-up-there poet who's no longer as "with it" as he wants to believe he is. There's also Sissy Na Na (K. Todd Freeman), a young-ish black trans woman who's the most together of them all; and Tanya (Julie White), uh, a working girl of a certain age who's trying to wean herself off of drugs.

Caroline Neff, Joe Tippett, and Carolyn Braver
Photo by Joan Marcus

The peace is barely kept by the Hummingbird's manager, Wayne (Scott Jaeck), who's made a life of looking the other way. The real head of the operation is Miss Ruby (Judith Roberts), the ancient madame of the strip club through which most of those around her have passed, but she's on her literal deathbed at the moment. To bring about one of her last wishes, her surrogate children have organized a funeral for her so she can experience it while she's still alive. And as a special surprise, they've brought back one of the few of their number who's been able to escape: Greg (Joe Tippett), who's now a thirtysomething preppy living as a kind of kept man in Atlanta, but who hasn't yet gotten over his six-year relationship with Krista.

It's the return of Greg—or, as he was known during his Hummingbird years, Bait Boy—with Zoe (Carolyn Braver), the 16-year-old daughter of his female companion that sparks many of the conflicts we witness across the better part of two and a half hours. But as with her Pulitzer Prize┬ľnominated play Detroit, which played in New York in 2012, Airline Highway is less about plot than it is exploring the ravages of poverty and helplessness on its victims. The characters there had a chance in the way these don't, true. But both sets are frustrated by promise that can't be realized and dreams that cannot come true. (There's more than a hint of the bleak Street Scene here, to be sure.)

D'Amour loads the evening with tasty ironies. Among them: Greg, despite getting what everyone else wants, is in many ways even more trapped than they; and Miss Ruby, as close as a mother figure as anyone here will ever get, is destined to dissolve into history, her voice of unexpected reason forever unheeded. "You hold the potential to teach the world something about itself," she purrs in her imagination as she enters her final, velvety death throes, "but every time you come close to embracing the mess of contradictions that makes you who you are, you throw away your chance. You let the world make you feel small and disposable."

K. Todd Freeman and the company
Photo by Joan Marcus

It's a serene, affecting moment that captures exactly what Airline Highway should be about—but, in this Joe Mantello┬ľdirected production never quite is. If the script is neither as pungent nor as poignant as Detroit's, its shifting the lens down the social and class scale results in a fascinating collage of personalities on the brink. But only White really conveys the sense of a beautiful soul polluted beyond recognition by circumstance, her natural comic gifts obviously suppressed to highlight Tanya's increasing despondency. Her journey is the most tragic, but also the most rewarding: a case study in failure for reasons beyond mere personal weakness. And Tippett, if less moving, imbues Greg with just the right lacerating edges of a man who knows his life is a lie.

The other performers can't match them, and D'Amour's writing otherwise strains against its own obviousness. Particularly grating is how clueless Zoe is to those around her; she's supposed to have been sheltered, yes, but her lack of empathy unconvincingly borders on the autistic. (Braver gives her portrayal her all, though.) Nor is it easy to accept Krista's myopia about those she knows best, which is central to the plot—there's nothing credible in either the writing or Neff's hard-driving portrayal that could sell Greg on her being a paralegal assistant.

Mantello has zestily staged things (particularly a pair of communal dance scenes) on a superbly broken-down motel set by Scott Pask, with costumes (by David Zinn) and lights (Japhy Weideman) that supplement their glittery grunginess, but doesn't craft a consistent picture of congenital loss that may drive home just how far gone these people are, and what it means for them as well as for us. There's a too-colorful, almost exploitative feeling about the proceedings that is less a gut punch than a mild upset stomach.

That won't jangle your nerves or jolt you to your senses in any real way; Airline Highway tries, but it just can't get that far. It does, however, help paint a bittersweet picture of a community that, like Miss Ruby, wading through its final dregs, hoping to make sense of itself in the precious little time it has left. But once you've heard a little, you'll want to learn more, but you won't get to know pretty much anyone sufficiently well enough.

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