They really know how to throw a party in New Orleans. The rowdy bash in Lisa D’Amour’s “Airline Highway” is a real blowout, and the disorderly partygoers seem to be having great fun. But like a lot of all-night parties, this one doesn’t stand up to the light. The scribe has installed a well-observed group of misfits and losers in the Hummingbird Motel, a haven for social outcasts. But aside from throwing her makeshift family that state-of-the-art shindig, she doesn’t give them much to do — or let them do anything for themselves.
D’Amour has warm feelings for battered cities and lost lives, and as she did in “Detroit,” she wears her heart on her sleeve here for New Orleans. The city’s biggest bash may be the annual dance with death it calls Mardi Gras, but the Jazz & Heritage Festival, more casually known as JazzFest, is a cozier local holiday to peg a party on. And when the beads and masks and feathers come out, and the disco ball starts turning, and the pink and blue lights wash over the walls (nice effects from lighting designer Japhy Weideman), this poor sad dump is magically transformed into its once-glamorous former self.
The formal occasion here is a preemptive funeral for someone who is still alive, a beloved old burlesque star named Miss Ruby (Judith Roberts, great bones) who lies in one of the shabby motel units upstairs, quietly dying. But she ain’t dead yet, folks, and Miss Ruby eventually makes it downstairs, bed and all, to celebrate her upcoming funeral with the old friends who credit her with having saved their sorry lives, in one way or another.
We don’t actually see into Miss Ruby’s room, or any of the other rooms where these lively residents are doing drug deals, sleeping off a drunken night, or entertaining johns, but Scott Pask has designed a depressingly realistic set of the parking lot and front doors of their rundown sanctuary — with a distinctive wrought-iron balcony that sets it in beautiful, beat-up New Orleans.
The parking lot isn’t very pretty, but it gets a lot of foot traffic, making it the ideal stage for all the people who come and go here. The Hummingbird could field a whole team of lifers like Wayne (Scott Jaeck, wonderful), who manages the motel, and Terry (Tim Edward Rhoze, another keeper) who hangs around looking for odd jobs, as well as strays like Francis (Ken Marks, another Mr. Wonderful), a happy hippie who comes and goes on his bike to read a poem he’s just written.
Among the more central characters, there’s Tanya (Julie White, delivering a smart case study in anxiety), a very nice hooker who does business from her room, but who on this occasion is organizing all the details (food, drink, party favors, etc.) for the funeral. Although she’s technically homeless at the moment, pretty Krista (Caroline Neff, soft and vulnerable), a dancer in a topless club on Bourbon Street, has come to pay her respects and watch for the return of Bait Boy (Joe Tippett, comfortable in the skin of this lost, screwed-up boy), the love of her life who is currently being kept by an older woman in Atlanta. (And who does show up, with a cute little jailbait played by Caroline Braver.)
Most vividly, though, among all these eccentric residents and visitors, there is Sissy Na Na (K. Todd Freeman, how vivid can you get?), the good-natured and very wise transvestite who carries on Miss Ruby’s tradition of den mother to the damned.
All the members of this tight little community are well defined by actors (including those who traveled with the show from Steppenwolf) who know their business, masterfully directed by Joe Mantello, who lives to get his hands on ensemble shows like this one.
“Airline Highway,” which is named after the seedy route that leads out of town, comes from a long tradition of waiting-room plays, which see a lot of misery but not much action. Eugene O’Neill wrote the definitive barroom specimen in “The Iceman Cometh,” but August Wilson is well-represented by “Jitney,” a play from his monumental Pittsburgh Cycle set in a taxi drivers’ dispatch center. But unlike those models, D’Amour doesn’t deliver a rousing finish, although she probably thinks she has, just by trucking in Miss Ruby at the end to deliver a long-winded speech to her “little duckies” reassuring them: “You are not disposable. You are invaluable. And you carry the ecstatic experience within you.”
We beg to differ.