Lisa D’Amour is the rare playwright willing to explore the issues of class and economic anxiety in contemporary American society. Her insightful and incendiary 2010 play Detroit followed two suburban couples at the height of the Great Recession. But Airline Highway, her intriguing but diffuse new drama at Manhattan Theatre Company’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, is more of a soft-focus snapshot of urban poverty than the powerhouse it could have been.
The setting is the Hummingbird Hotel outside New Orleans (brilliantly designed by Scott Pask) whose longtime denizens are a Chex mix of strippers, prostitutes, handymen, transgender hairdressers, and addicts. But that prolonged seediness may be unsustainable given the imminent opening of a Costco up the street. Wayne, the kindly manager (Scott Jaeck), hints that the owners have been grumbling about filling the rooms with paying customers.
Despite their marginal hand-to-mouth status, the motel’s regulars have managed to forge a community — or subculture, in the words of 16-year-old Zoe (Carolyn Braver, nicely gawky), who implausibly arrives to interview folks for a school assignment on the subject. She’s accompanied by her stepfather, Greg (Joe Tippett), a former Hummingbirder who escaped several years ago when he married a cougarish suburban Atlanta housewife (Zoe’s mom) and shed his low-class nickname, Bait Boy.
The occasion for his return is the kind of event that could probably only happen in a play set in the Big Easy: a pre-death funeral party for Miss Ruby (Orange Is the New Black‘s Judith Roberts), an aging and bed-bound burlesque performer who served as mother hen for the Hummingbird’s transient family of f—-ups. And there’s no mistaking just how tenuous their lives are. A younger stripper named Krista (nicely played by Carolyn Neff), clutching a nylon duffel bag and needing a shower, at one point confides, “I don’t have my room this week.” It’s a revelation of her dire economic state that is made all the more devastating because of its casual delivery — but it’s a throwaway line. We don’t learn much more about Krista’s story, aside from her anxiety about encountering her ex, Greg, again.
The problem here, aside from the schematic nature of Zoe ambling up to strangers with her iPad and hitting record, is that there are just too many characters. The cast is 16 strong, with standouts like Julie White as a past-her-prime hooker and K. Todd Newman as a sassy trans woman named Sissy Na Na. While that’s an admirable number of subjects for the kind of sociology study Zoe intends, it’s far too many for a play that can already feel rather diffuse and unfocused.
In many ways, I wish that D’Amour had ditched Zoe altogether and centered her play on Greg and his you-can’t-go-home-again story. His flight from the underclass is arguably the most interesting, and underdeveloped, narrative thread here because it shows an evolution rather than the continued downward spiral everywhere else in evidence. Since he arrives at the parking-lot party bearing a sandwich platter from Whole Foods, he represents the bourgeois American culture that both eludes the rest of the Hummingbird crew — and threatens their very existence. Grade: B–