For theatergoers who like big casts that are well directed in huge, rambling plays, a visit to see “Airline Highway,” which opened Thursday at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre in New York, is recommended. Lisa D’Amour’s new play, which had its world premiere last year at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre, gives 16 actors the platform to connect with each other, show off their considerable talents, and, most importantly, build an extended family on stage together. What’s theatrically indulgent about “Airline Highway” — and therefore, so appreciated — is how D’Amour could easily have eliminated a few actors in the ensemble, especially the people (Toni Martin, Todd D’Amour, Sekou Laidlow) who inhabit the crack den that is the lower stage-right unit at the Hummingbird Motel, rendered in seedy (almost smelly) detail in Scott Pask’s harrowingly realistic set.
In a choice between “Airline Highway” and the Manhattan Theatre Club’s previous production, the highly acclaimed two-hander “Constellations” starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson, I’d pick the D’Amour play to see again. That’s a minority opinion, no doubt, but I’m a sucker for big casts, especially very talented ones, which “Airline Highway” delivers under the expert direction of Joe Mantello.
As Tanya, the whore with a heart of gold addled with crack in New Orleans, Julie White pulls back considerably from her bravura Tony-winning performance in “The Little Dog Laughed.” As the ball-busting agent in “Dog,” White didn’t so much have to interact with the other actors as talk over them. She offers a mortally bruised portrait in “Airline Highway,” and yet there’s a nice take-charge efficiency about the way she stages a funeral for the still-living Miss Ruby (Judith Roberts), who is about to pass the mantle of motel den mother to Tanya if the drugs don’t get to her. That Tanya keeps it together long enough to send off her old friend in style can be credited to the motel’s itinerant handyman Terry, a character that Tim Edward Rhoze effortlessly turns into the play’s moral compass.
Tanya says she never had the talent to dance — that is, take off her clothes — in Miss Ruby’s club, and it’s likely that her long life as a prostitute will be inherited by current stripper Krista (Caroline Neff), who has never quite recovered from her affair with a man they call Bait Boy (Joe Tippett), who has changed his name to Greg for his return to the Hummingbird. He brings with him a young stepdaughter, Zoe (Carolyn Braver).
Zoe is a problem, not for the Hummingbird Motel but the play. Zoe is doing research on a subculture for a high school term paper, which is why Greg has brought her to the kind of motel where one spends a lifetime and never just a night.
D’Amour should have let “Airline Highway” ramble more and not tried to tie everything up with Zoe’s term paper. It’s more than clear that, while none of her characters shares blood, they are a family. And like most families, they can be entertaining as long as you don’t have to live with them, and that includes actor K. Todd Freeman, who turns Sissy Na Na into one of the least flamboyant transgender characters seen on stage. Equally understated is Tippett, who almost makes you forget that Bait Boy was last seen on stage in “Picnic.”
Now that the various theater-award sweepstakes are upon us, it will be intriguing to see how many nominations these gifted American actors playing stock characters receive compared to the British actors playing stock characters in “Wolf Hall” — as if the residents of the Hummingbird Motel ever had a chance against the royals in the court of Henry VIII.