Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Airline Highway: Messy Lives

Where do addicts, hookers, strippers, and fuck ups end up? In New Orleans, apparently the answer is the Hummingbird Motel on Airline Highway. A crumbling rundown motel that like all its denizens it once had potential.  Scott Pask's multi-level dingy motel set provides an worthy framework for Lisa D'Amour's new play about hope, love, loyalty, and remembrance directed as always with a keen eye by Joe Mantello.

Tanya (Julie White) and Sissy (K. Todd Freeman) have organized a funeral for Miss Ruby (Judith Roberts) who is not yet dead yet, at her request. Miss Ruby ran a strip club for years in the Quarter and she has been the matriarch of this rag-tag collection of down-on-their-luck, make-all-the-wrong-choices tenants. Stripper Krista (Caroline Neff) usually lives at the motel but doesn't have the money this week.  Krista has hooking up lately with Terry (Tim Edward Rhoze) who's been trying to get paid for some odd jobs around the model.  Everyone at the motel has kept Krista in the dark about her old boyfriend Bait Boy (Joe Tippett) who is returning for the funeral after finding a better life with a "cougar"girlfriend in Atlanta. When Bait Boy arrives he insists on being called Greg now. He's got his girlfriend's teenage daughter Zoe (Carolyn Braver) with him in tow. Zoe is writing a sociology paper on sub-cultures and decides to try to interview the Hummingbird residents for her paper.

D'Amour structures the play with an extraordinary amount of overlapping dialogue. So much so that at times the talking and yelling end up just as messy as the people opening their mouths. There's no peace here. Voices are always raised. Information is not lost by this overlap. The tensions, lust, anger, sadness, love, and disappointment between characters is still clearly expressed.

I understand why D'Amour uses the teenage outsider as a catalyst for self-reflection and ratcheting up the tension but these characters do not really need a push beyond a pill or a drink to start to reveal more than they mean to. And the antagonistic privileged teenager feels too convenient and mostly a device at times. Besides the audience of a Broadway theater feels like a sociology student peering in at a subculture by its own nature. I'm not sure we needed the direct corollary on stage. I was also disappointed that the mostly naturalistic play drifts into a brief fever dream nearer the end to speak the subtext. It doesn't add enough to quite justify it in my mind.  Both these actions feel like a lack of confidence that the story would otherwise get communicated by the characters.  But in all honesty they are petty form nits.

Overall I liked this messy, broken down world that is presented with and without judgment. A group of people who have seen the worst of it and are struggling to live up to their potential. Withhold love or light from people and they try to fill these holes with something. They fold in on themselves and this world because the outside world is a constant stream of disappointment and judgment.  This community is self-forming because it allows for this brand of stasis and necessary self-delusion.

This world, these voices, and this subculture is not something we see a lot of on stage.  I noticed recently how little we even see regional stories that are connected to specific time and place.  Airline Highway is certainly the exception.  With Scott Pask's incredible two story motel set and D'Amour finely tuned voices, we know we are in a very specific and special place. Even before the show starts we see the flickering of action on stage.  Tiny bits of stage business add up to a wholly realized world that blooms before our eyes.

Mantello can draw out such beautiful, strong performances from actors.  Freeman and White are off-the-charts great here.  It would have been easy for any of these actors to lazily drift into some sort of stereotype of their characters, but Mantello makes sure everyone is being wholly authentic when on stage.  No motion, movement, or stage action is wasted.  He carefully controls the overlapping dialogue and action so that he let's the characters be messy but the storytelling be clear.  He's a genius.

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