Review: Airline Highway

Airline Highway Samuel J. Friedman Theatre

What a great season this has been for new American plays! First Hand to God and now this, which I like even better. Airline Highway is set on the titular New Orleans roadway, a desolate stretch of road, at the Hummingbird, a run-down motel. Most of the customers are long-term residents, a rogues gallery of strippers, prostitutes and entertainers barely scraping by.

This motley crew are giving a wake-like funeral to the still-living Miss Ruby, an old burlesque performer from Bourbon Street’s more decadent and stylish days. The irrepresible vitality of New Orleans is much talked about, and is in fact on abundant display. That doesn’t hide the abject misery that many of the characters find themselves in from time to time, often of their own creation.

This is a dead-end existance, and playwright Lisa D’Amour makes no attempt to hide that. The true human mirace here is the amount of fun and life these people can find, in situations that would drive weaker souls to unrelenting depression.

This came in from Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre, which is known for its great ensemble work. And Airline Highway is without a doubt one of the greatest ensemble plays of recent memory, featuring spotlight moments for much of its large cast, and moments of gleefully chaotic overlapping. Standing out in the crowd are K. Todd Freeman as “sissy bounce” boy Sissy Na Na, and Judith Roberts as the bed-ridden, truth-saying Ruby.

Even more impressive is Julie White as prostitute Tanya, arguably the play’s emotional center. Usually a bitingly comic performer, White is given a much meater dramatic character and situation than usual here, and tears into it with gusto. Director Joe Mantello balances the play’s many elements with great intelligence and precision. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

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