Friday, April 24, 2015

Margin Notes: Airline Highway

Julie White and Scott Jaeck as Tanya and Wayne.
Photo by Joan Marcus.
Airline Highway

Seen on: Thursday, 4/9/15.
My grade: B+. While not necessarily my kind of show, it was moving and very well acted.

Plot and Background
It's the very near future (May 2015, to be precise) at the gone-to-seed Hummingbird Motel, just off the Airline Highway in New Orleans, and the motel's inhabitants are throwing a "living funeral" for the not-quite-departed Miss Ruby. Most of the attendees are those who will never leave, but when Bait Boy, gone three years to a life of respectability, returns with his stepdaughter in tow, tempers fly. This play is Pulitzer Prize finalist Lisa D'Amour's Broadway debut, and has transferred to New York from its recent run at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company.

What I Knew Beforehand
Literally nothing but the title.


Play: I don't know if everyone will like this show. There's not a whole lot of plot to it - it's more a collage, a collection of portraits, a landscape even, than a story. I've been seeing people compare it to Lanford Wilson's Balm in Gilead or The Hot L Baltimore, and it certainly has elements in kind with those - an ensemble of semi-broken individuals, clinging together while also desperately trying to break apart, break free into something else. This is post-Katrina New Orleans, and no one's very optimistic about their prospects. Musically it also evokes Wilson's work, in its overlapping dialogue and conversations - no one politely takes his turn here, and there are often two or more conversations happening at one time. So I don't know if everyone will like this show. But if theater is meant to elicit honest and spontaneous emotion from its audience, this show worked for me. I found myself suddenly crying in Act Two, and I didn't stop until the curtain call. Perhaps it was just Miss Ruby's insistence, when looking at her despairing children in the lot of a motel that's being threatened by a newly-opened Costco across the way, that despite what they think they "are not disposable." An important thing to remember.

Cast: This show had an incredibly strong ensemble, with its two shining stars being the warm but fragile Julie White as Tanya, an aging prostitute, and the smart-mouthed but nurturing K. Todd Freeman as the self-proclaimed "Super Tranny" Sissy Na Na. Caroline Neff achieved a compelling vulnerability, even if you wanted to (like the other characters) shake her out of her delusion that a reconciliation with Bait Boy is a good idea. While these three were standouts, the play was at its strongest when all the players were in action - singing or arguing, decorating, or just existing - the sum was always worth more than the parts.

Design: Scott Pask's set is the trash-littered parking lot of the declined Hummingbird Motel, with a cinderblocked car, shopping cart, patio furniture, and the odd decorations that make it clear this is a home (a hanging plant, a wind chime, a barbeque grill). The set is later festooned by the characters, Mardi Gras style, with Christmas lights, streamers, feather boas, fans, beads, and a disco ball. The effect is somehow both garish and sweet. It's as fancy as they can afford to be. Fitz Patton underscores the play with the distant hum of passing cars - life is moving on close by, but not here. Japhy Weideman's lighting effectively conveys the passage of time over about 24 hours, and has one splashy moment - during Miss Ruby's lecture, the walls of the hotel are glowing pink, like the old days, and somehow less dingy.


Running: Now playing at Samuel J. Friemdan Theatre (Manhattan Theatre Club/Steppenwolf) - Opening April 23, 2015. Closing: June 14, 2015
Category: straight play
Length: 2 hours, 15 minutes, including intermission.

Creative Team

Playwright: Lisa D'Amour
Director: Joe Mantello
Designers: Scott Pask (Set), David Zinn (Costume), Japhy Weideman (Lighting), Fitz Patton (Original Music and Sound), Thomas Schall (Fight Director).
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.
Caroline Neff as Krista and cast. Photo by Joan Marcus.

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