ADVERTISING AT CURTAINUP
BOOKS and CDs
LETTERS TO EDITOR
A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
The setting is the parking lot of the Hummingbird Motel, a seedy hangout for a group of society's outliers. The times is May 2015. The event to make that parking lot hum is a party for Miss Ruby, an 80-year-old once fabulous burlesque dancer. The dying Ruby has asked for this celebration to take place while she could still hear their eulogies.
The preparations for the party take up the first act and are essentially the means to introduce us to all these colorful types, all except Miss Ruby. But not to worry. True to her program credit, Judith Roberts's Ruby does eventually show up. Unfortunately, not in time to save Ms. D'Amour's party from leaving us feeling more bored than buoyant from partaking of this slice of New Orleans' underbelly.
It's not that this affectionate and romanticized group portrait of individuals behind the scenes of the jazz festival and great restaurants that draw tourists to New Orleans lacks the color associated even with its low life. The problem is that it's all been done before, and better. Tennessee Williams would be right at home at the Hummingbird, and recognize many of its denizens. And Lanford Wilson would not be surprised to see a letter of the motel's big neon sign fall off as it did in his The Hot L Baltimore. Sure, Williams's Vieux Carre boarding house and Wilson's hotel weren't sitting on a highway where their decaying buildings would likely be overshadowed or completely done in by a Costco. But though the setting and clothes are very much now, there's nothing really new here. This usually observant playwright's party meanders towards the same sort of dead end as her characters' lives.
Airline Highway does offer Miss D'Amour a chance to introduce us to the bottom of the heap folks who service the pleasure seeking Big Easy tourists. It's also an opportunity for Joe Mantello to direct a play about a similar setting and cast of characters, as he did 15 years ago with the Williamstown Theatre Festival's revival of Lanford Wilson's crumbling hotel play (WTF's Hot L Baltimare review). And for the big cast it's a talent showcase.
Mantello as usual helps the actors to make the most of their characters.Here are the chief characters you'll see moving up and down the staircase of the Hummingbird — an authentic and vivid creation by the Scott Pask, who also designed responsible for the just opened Finding Neverland and The Visit, and vibrantly lit by Japhy Weideman: Tanya (Julie White) . . . Sissy Na Na (K. Todd Freeman), the super-colorful African American trans-sexual and chief organizer of this "living funeral" . . . stripper Krista (Caroline Neff)temporarily boarding (and doing tricks) with Tanya . . . Terry (Tim Edward Rhoze), a handyman with a tender heart. . . Wayne (Scott Jaeck), the talkative motel manager. . . Francis (Ken Marks) a bike-riding old beatnik.
Though Katrina is still recent history, the storm that has tossed these people around is not induced by Mother Nature, but their own bad choices and inability to undo them. All these actors, in perfect Big Easy-Sleazy mode by David Zinn, are excellent. White, Freeman and Neff are particularly good at finding emotional depths in their c overly familiar roles.
The one character who managed to get away is Krista's former lover, a fellow named Bait Boy (Joe Tippett) who's now living a middle class life with an older woman and calls himself Greg. Fond memories of Miss Ruby have brought him to the party with goodies from Whole Foods and his teen aged stepdaughter Zoe (Carolyn Braver).
It's understandable that the Krista-Bait Boy past stirs up some residue sexual tensions but like everything else it doesn't really help to make this party more cohesive. Perhaps, the playwright's awareness of this, explains why she decided to add Zoe and arm her camera capable gadgets to interview everyone for a high school social studies project. Those interviews look more deeply into these people's backgrounds . Unfortunately, though her interviews and the final coda sum things up as a plea for looking at these basically invisible people, it's an awkward authorial device.
The second act does finally see the party getting into full swing, a grand bacchanal that brings the entire cast on board. Judith Roberts is indeed grand when she finally leaves her room to be carried down on a stretcher. The way she delivers her hello and goodbye speech about great sex and personal freedom almost makes it sound memorably wise rather than something from someone hallucinating.
Caveat: If you're sensitive to the smell from herbal cigarettes, be forewarned. I found it particularly strong at the Friedman Theater.