The misfit hookers, strippers and drug addicts of MTC’s “Airline Highway” spend their days along the famous road leading to the New Orleans airport, but none of them are going anywhere anytime soon.
A loose-limbed character study by Lisa D’Amour—her last piece, the anxiety-laden “Detroit,” mined similarly despairing territory—“Airline Highway” arrives via Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company and is directed by Joe Mantello. It’s just opened at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.
Drifting in and out of the crumbling Humming Bird Motel are a half-dozen friends, including Tanya, a prostitute (Tony winner Julie White); Wayne, who manages the place (Scott Jaeck); and Krista, a stripper who can no longer afford the rent on one of the dilapidated rooms (Caroline Neff).
They’ve assembled in the motel parking lot for the funeral of Miss Ruby, a renowned burlesque parlor owner many of them hold dear. Miss Ruby isn’t dead, but she’s being monitored by hospice and a wish was to be around for her own farewell. (Scott Pask’s vibrant set effectively sets the mood.)
The arrival of “Bait Boy” (Joe Tippett), who seems to have escaped the misery of the Humming Bird, serves as a catalyst. Greg, who earned his nickname because of his fondness for underage women (Krista was one of them), is now a kept man who shows up with the 16-year-old daughter of his latest girlfriend.
For Tanya, who gave up her own biological children for adoption, the Humming Bird family has become an outlet for nurturing instincts, and White (with Jaeck, below) is just lovely as a woman who can’t face the decisions of her own past. “Airline Highway” also includes an excellent turn from K. Todd Freeman as Sissy Na Na, a trans bartender who is the play’s requisite voice of spiritual wisdom.
The raucous party organized by Tanya brings with it much of the energy we associate with the freewheeling city, and allows Bait Boy’s teenage charge (Carolyn Braver) to probe the stories of the motel dwellers in the guise of a high school project about “subcultures.”
In a climactic monologue, a fiery Ruby (Judith Roberts, of “Orange Is the New Black”) is carried down from her room on a gurney and makes an impassioned speech, opining that all the people who came into her orbit had a gift for sensuality, but have made lousy decisions with their lives—they’re sexually liberated, she’s saying, but nothing else about them is truly free.
Miss Ruby would tell Tanya and the lot that they have more strength than they realize, and they need to stop letting their weaknesses drag them down. There aren’t any sort of tidy resolutions in “Airline Highway,” and we never get the feeling these has-beens at the Humming Bird will pay Miss Ruby any due. They’re stuck, but at least they’re having a swell time.
“Airline Highway,” through June 14 at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th St. Tickets: $67-$130. Call Telecharge, 212-239-6200.