New York City Theater
Samuel J. Friedman Theater
“Each one of us is in charge of holding up a very special part of the universe and, without each one of us, the universe would just come crashing down.” So says Sissy Na Na, one of the 16 colorful characters in Lisa D’Amour’s sprawling, naturalistic play, “Airline Highway.” Maybe “colorful” is too mild a word: these are Technicolor-ful people, hookers and transvestites, drug addicts and alcoholics, part of a self-styled family living at the Hummingbird Motel in New Orleans.
The occasion: former strip-club owner, the ailing octogenarian Miss Ruby, wants a funeral before she dies. The play is predicated on the line, “Why do we gotta wait until we’re in the coffin for people to say nice things about us?”
One fly in the ointment is Bait Boy, who used to live at the motel and has since escaped to marry a rich woman elsewhere in the city, an uncomfortable reminder of society’s divisions. Returning for the party, he brings his stepdaughter, Zoe, a high school student writing a sociology paper. Her questioning the other characters reveals their histories and relationships, an awkward device that makes for some long q-and-a passages.
The award-winning D’Amour (whose play “Detroit:” was a 2011 Pulitzer Prize finalist) has a fine ear for patois. By the time she gets to Miss Ruby’s monologue about life (“Most people are afraid. They cower in their chairs, holding on tight to the selves that they know. Buttoning the top button. Smoothing down their hair”), we know a lot about her characters.
If it isn’t quite enough for a full evening in which nothing much happens, at least the play, which takes place today, is an antidote to creeping conformity. Though it smacks of a 60s commune, with characters left over from that era, it makes a case for rebellion against tyranny.
It’s also blessed with brave, self-effacing performances, such as Julie White’s pill-popping Tanya, K. Todd Freeman’s golden-hearted Sissy Na Na, Tim Edward Rhoze’s unhandy handyman Terry and Caroline Neff’s homeless stripper Krista. On Scott Pask’s down-at-the-heels set, vibrantly lit by Japhy Weidman, denizens costumed in New Orleans drag by David Zinn truly inhabit a world apart.
That this full-length character study can’t quite cut it doesn’t detract from its vividness. Yet, even expert director Joe Mantello can’t make a satisfying stew out of recycled ingredients that smack of Tennessee Williams but spell out bromides he would have left unsaid. After all, what are we to do with lines like “You’ve moved past the mirage of stability and the fantasy that life is a neat and tidy package”?
--David A. Rosenberg
May 19, 2015