Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
261 West 47th St. between Broadway & Eighth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through June 14, $50-$130
Pulitzer Prize finalist Lisa D’Amour (Detroit) channels her inner Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill in Airline Highway, a rapturous tale about a group of lovable luckless losers coexisting in the run-down, dilapidated Hummingbird Motel on a slowly gentrifying Airline Highway in modern-day, post-Katrina New Orleans. It’s the spring of 2014, and the sad-sack denizens of the seedy motel are preparing for a funeral party in honor of their matriarch, Miss Ruby (Judith Roberts), a local burlesque legend who is on her deathbed but wants a big send-off while she’s still alive. Tanya (Julie White), an aging hooker with a heart of gold, is organizing the festivities, getting help from the loud, fun-loving transgender Sissy Na Na (K. Todd Freeman), moody stripper Krista (Caroline Neff), hippie leftover Francis (Ken Marks), jack of all trades, master of none Terry (Tim Edward Rhoze), and longtime motel manager and primary ne’er-do-well Wayne (Scott Jaeck). They all share a familial sense of camaraderie, ribbing one another about their sorry-ass lives, but only to show they really do care. “Why do we gotta wait until we’re in the coffin for people to say nice things about us?” Francis asks. “Yeah, like maybe if those people said those things earlier, we’d live longer,” Wayne adds, to which Krista responds, “Who wants to live longer.” Trouble soon shows up in the form of Bait Boy (Joe Tippett), an old Hummingbird resident who got out three years earlier and is trying to make a new life for himself, moving in with a cougar and her sixteen-year-old daughter, Zoe (Carolyn Braver), in Atlanta. Bait Boy — whose nickname has numerous debated derivations — had been in a long-term relationship with Krista, who is none too happy to see him again, especially since he has brought his stepdaughter; Zoe keeps asking everyone personal questions as part of a sociology paper she is doing for school. “I’m supposed to interview at least three people from the same subculture,” she explains. “Meaning, you live in a ‘culture,’ and you are coming down to us,” Sissy Na Na points out. Bait Boy’s return and Zoe’s presence set things in motion as the past comes back to haunt them all.
Two-time Tony winner Joe Mantello (Assassins, Take Me Out) directs this Steppenwolf production, presented by Manhattan Theatre Club, with an infectious giddiness that is echoed in David Zinn’s spot-on costumes and Scott Pask’s fab set, which turns the drab parking lot of the dilapidated, depressing Hummingbird into a space bursting with life despite the universal lack of hope displayed by the characters, all damaged goods who seem resigned to their fate. But that’s not going to stop them from dressing up and throwing one helluva party. The ensemble is superb, led by Tony winner White (The Little Dog Laughed,), who has been nominated for a Tony and a Drama Desk Award for her lovely, understated performance as Tanya, a street-smart woman who expected more out of life but is making due with the lot she’s been cast. Tony nominee Freeman (The Song of Jacob Zulu) is up for a Tony and Drama Desk Award for his poignant portrayal of Sissy, a caring soul who speaks her mind and loves to have a good time. In her Broadway debut, Neff (A Brief History of Helen of Troy) gives a beautiful, heartbreaking edge to Krista, who is ashamed of what’s become of her, while Rhoze is a riot as Terry, a layabout who should have done more with his life. The play is alive with the energy of New Orleans, as well as its music, highlighted by Fitz Patton’s original score, a fiery take on Nina Simone’s “Be My Husband,” and overlapping dialogue bursting with an intoxicating rhythm. Two late soliloquies are entirely unnecessary, overemphasizing what the story has already shown us about these very believable forgotten men and women living by their wits on the fringes of society. The play takes place during Jazz Fest, but only Francis has ever been to the annual New Orleans celebration, and he doesn’t even go to the main part. “The real fest is on the edges,” he says, just like their existence. There are various Native American legends about the hummingbird, a positive symbol that can represent peace, love, and happiness as well as beauty, harmony, and integrity. Airline Highway has all that and more.