Set at a rundown motel on a forgotten span of New Orleans highway, with an under-construction Costco and attendant gentrification looming across the street, Lisa D’Amour’s new play concerns itself with “those who are forgotten and the general down and out,” as one character puts it.
D’Amour’s characters are what some might call the “real” New Orleans—the strippers and prostitutes, hustlers and odd-jobbers, bartenders and barflies who might work serving French Quarter tourists but make their home here at the Hummingbird Motel, except for those weeks they can’t afford their rooms; they’ve never been to Jazz Fest as paying customers but will allow they might have delivered Porta-Potties there once.
The play takes place over the course of one long day and night—the day of community matriarch Miss Ruby’s “living funeral.” With her passing imminent, the former burlesque queen wants her life celebrated while she can hear it.
One of those returning for the party is “Bait Boy” (Stephen Louis Grush), a former legend-in-his-own-mind as a karaoke host, now living with the veneer of respectability with a rich older wife in Atlanta and asking to be called Greg, please. His arrival stirs a shock in Krista (the marvelous Caroline Neff), a struggling stripper who had a six-year, by all accounts toxic relationship with Bait Boy. He brings in tow his 16-year-old stepdaughter, Zoe (Carolyn Braver), who wants to interview everyone for her sociology project.
Wayne (Scott Jaeck), the motel’s on-site manager, clearly carries a torch for Tanya (Kate Buddeke), the warm but unsteady organizer of the proceedings, who works as a prostitute from her room upstairs. The group’s conscience is gender-nonconforming, self-professed “super tranny” Sissy Na Na (a mesmerizing, magnetic K. Todd Freeman).
Director Joe Mantello’s production, which will move to Broadway via Manhattan Theatre Club in the spring, packs the stage with bodies; there are 15 official cast members, but when the party’s in full swing, nine actors officially credited as understudies make it onstage. It might be slightly too many, actually, with Tim Edward Rhoze’s handyman Terry and Gordon Joseph Weiss’s philosophizing hippie also in the main-character mix.
These are all deeply recognizable, empathetic performances, and Mantello manages our focus with great skill, but it’s hard to fully invest in the characters in the slow-burning first act. D’Amour often has two or three conversations overlapping, and it can feel like you’re missing information. Airline Highway can seem a bit clogged with traffic, but as an exploration of chosen families stocked with expert performances, it’s a road worth traveling.
Steppenwolf Theatre Company. By Lisa D’Amour. Directed by Joe Mantello. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 15mins; one intermission.