Losers on the edge of the world.
That’s who we meet in Lisa D’Amour’s “Airline Highway”: a collection of drunks, drag queens, drug dealers, strippers and barely employed margin-dwellers who eke out an unplanned existence in the Hummingbird Motel.
Playwrights love to write about outcasts because, well, their lives just seem so dramatic compared to those of bill-paying middle-class theatergoers.
Ever since Maxim Gorky’s “The Lower Depths” was produced in 1902, dramatists have found the lives of lost souls at the bottom of the social spectrum irresistible. D’Amour’s play, first produced in Chicago by the Steppenwolf Theatre Company and presented on Broadway by the Manhattan Theatre Club, is a creditable contribution to an honorable genre.
D’Amour owes a debt to another example of the tradition, Lanford Wilson’s “Hot L Baltimore.” As Wilson did in his 1973 play, D’Amour fills the stage with major and minor characters in overlapping conversations. Both plays celebrate transient chaos as characters come and go unpredictably and the world onstage simmers with “life.”
The Hummingbird appears to be a resident motel by default, sitting in a still-to-be-revived section of post-Katrina New Orleans. The motel and its occupants exist far beyond the reach of officialdom, charity workers or social institutions of any kind. The play unfolds in a corner of the motel’s courtyard in front of two floors of rooms connected by a stairway. Scott Pask’s detailed set is a fine, grimy piece of work.
Director Joe Mantello choreographs the action well as he shifts people upstairs and downstairs and gets them on and off stage (sometimes via the central aisle of the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.) It’s fun to watch a play so dedicated to realism, but at times theatergoers must choose exactly whom and what to watch. There’s no way to absorb it all, and Mantello stages the action as a kind of moving tableaux, leaving viewers to decide what deserves their attention. In a way, the actual conversations are less important than a physical environment so tangible that it virtually becomes a character.
This two-act piece is a bit of a construct, driven by a major event: Miss Ruby’s “living funeral,” which members of the Hummingbird community are busily planning as Act 1 gets underway. Miss Ruby, we learn, was the matriarch of a strip club and at one time or another employed many of the characters we meet. Now she’s in rapid decline, confined to her bed in an upstairs room.
The gallery of characters includes Sissy Na Na (K. Todd Freeman), a drag queen; Tanya (Julie White), a middle-aged drug addict; Wayne (Scott Jaeck), the graying, long-haired motel manager; Terry (Tim Edward Rhoze), a garrulous, self-appointed handyman; Krista (Caroline Neff), a stripper who, unable to pay the rent, has lost her room; and Francis (Ken Marks), a motorcycle-riding poet.
A refugee from this colony, Bait Boy (Joe Tippett) returns for the shindig, bringing with him Zoe (Carolyn Braver), the teenage daughter of the woman he now lives with in Atlanta.
Bait Boy, a former bouncer for Miss Ruby, has become rather respectable and insists that he now goes by Greg. Zoe is working on a research paper about “subcultures” for one of her high school classes and wants to interview the Hummingbird residents about their peculiar world.
Zoe, of course, gets more than she bargained for before the night is over and learns more than she might have preferred about Bait Boy’s relationships with the gang — particularly with Krista, whom he abandoned when he lit out for Atlanta.
Ultimately, Miss Ruby (Judith Roberts) is lifted down the stairs on her gurney to join the party. She doesn’t understand what it’s all about at first, but at a crucial moment she suddenly looks around and eloquently expresses her love for these crazy misfits.
She speaks from a dream state, and the Hummingbird residents don’t hear her, but she grants these hapless outlaws a bit of grace. Any human life, the play implies, has inherent value, no matter what.
The actors for the most part seem satisfied to serve the play. At a recent matinee, Braver was intolerably shrill at times, perhaps because D’Amour’s script demands it as the kid tries to apply half-baked notions about subcultures to the defiantly unique personalities of the Hummingbird. Mantello has directed the actors in a way that denies any of them a big, truth-telling moment. This isn’t that kind of play.
I have to say there’s something irresistible about watching people living on the edge when you have actors committed to convincing behavior and a playwright interested in characters who behave more or less like real people. The characters in “Airline Highway” seem destined to always dwell in twilight. Which tells us something we need to hear more often: Theater at its best is about more than just putting on a show.