It is interesting to observe how many young playwrights are going back to the kind of slice-of-life realism that came out of early twentieth-century playwrights like Maxim Gorky and which influenced American writers like William Saroyan, Sidney Kingsley and the young Lanford Wilson. Narrative coherence isn't the objective here; rather we are given a variety of people society might call losers. Recently Annie Baker has used this form on a smaller scale in plays like ALIENS and THE FLICK, as did Samuel D. Hunter in his lovely play POCATELLO. Now Lisa D'Amour, who wrote the powerful picture of a declining America, DETROIT, gives us a large-scale example of slice-of-life realism in AIRLINE HIGHWAY, set in the parking lot of a sleazy, ramshackle New Orleans motel filled with misfits. On the day the play takes place, they are having a party to celebrate the life of the dying Miss Ruby. There are young and aging prostitutes, recovering addicts, and drag queens, all drawn, as is everyone in the play, to New Orleans because of its Bacchanalian spirit. New Orleans is great because it isn't Atlanta, the avatar of the new, entrepreneurial South, where Bait Boy, the young former occupant of the Hummingbird Motel has gone to find success and a conventional domestic life.
Like Lanford Wilson in works like THE HOT L BALTIMORE, D'Amour uses a lot of overlapping dialogue. A number of conversations might be going on at the same time or characters are simply talking without listening to other people . I found the play to be an interesting technical exercise, but I couldn't work up much interest in or sympathy for the characters. Some characters, like the drag queen Sissy NaNa, present themselves as victims of awful upbringings. Others seems to be living the outcomes of poor choices. Are we supposed to see these folks as the last gasps of a vibrant culture being uprooted by Walmarts and Costcos and Atlantas? If these people are representatives of that culture, why is it worth lamenting?
Joe Mantello has given the play a masterful production filled with realistic detail. There may be a dozen or more people on stage at any moment, but all are given detailed action even when they are in the background. Scott Pask's set couldn't be more convincing. The ensemble is uniformly excellent, but Julie White, as always, dominates as the aging prostitute battling addiction. K. Todd Freeman is equally good as Sissy NaNa. This is not a stereotype of a Black drag queen, but a hardened man who has obviously fought a lot of battles.
I had respect for the talent involved in AIRLINE HIGHWAY. I wish I could have cared more.
AIRLINE HIGHWAY. Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. April 3, 2015.