Chicago Theater Review: AIRLINE HIGHWAY (Steppenwolf)

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by Lawrence Bommer on December 17, 2014

in Theater-Chicago

A POOR MAN’S LANFORD WILSON

Kate Buddeke (Tanya), Caroline Neff (Krista) and Stephen Louis Grush (Bait Boy) in Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s AIRLINE HIGHWAY, a world premiere by Lisa D’Amour, directed by Joe Mantello. Photo by Michael Brosilow.Only in New Orleans could a dumpy parking lot flanking a decrepit motel on a highway leading only to the airport be transformed into a lagniappe-soaked, Mardi Gras-festive party place. This ugly setting gradually gets festooned with colored lights, bunting, papier-mâché medallions, beer kegs, glitzy garlands, and loud jazz. “Laissez les bon temps rouler” indeed! And, though Jazz Fest is a good excuse for a fete (as if the Crescent City ever needed one), this very specific celebration is in fact a “funeral” for the still-not-dead Miss Ruby, queen of the burlesque. Though at death’s door, this grande dame is a grateful ghost ready for one last blowout. This “earth mother” is going to, or seeking out, her reward.

The neon-lonely Hummingbird Motel is the carnival setting for Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s world premiere Airline Highway by Lisa D’Amour (author of the dourer Detroit). With famed musical maven Joe Mantello directing, this show is already Judith Roberts (Miss Ruby) in Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s AIRLINE HIGHWAY, a world premiere by Lisa D’Amour, directed by Joe Mantello. Photo by Michael Brosilow.slated for Broadway—a spring premiere at Manhattan Theater Club.

Beware of plays where characters regularly proclaim how actual, vibrant, and kickass real they are: It usually means they’re figments of their author, simulations of authenticity who doth protest their purity too much. No question, L’Amour, who hails from bayou country, has knowledge of and sympathy for these dozen or more marginal underdogs, freaks of the fringe now gathered to validate their salad/glory days (a Costco is going up across the street, so their rebel realm is threatened). Apart from detonating a cacophony of true and false memory-mongering, the impromptu street “funeral” also occasions rueful remorse over sheer short-sightedness. A trenchant lack of long-term planning has made these too-transient ex-hippies, ragtag hustlers, druggies, and veteran strippers and sex workers orphans of their own storm.

The cast of Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s AIRLINE HIGHWAY, a world premiere by Lisa D’Amour, directed by Joe Mantello. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

L’Amour employs a maddening mix of (supposedly realistic) overlapping banter and cross-talk, as well as dialogue mood swings that raucously lurch from small recollections to big resentments. The ear-splitting result: a kind of “island of lost causes,” a loudmouth Catfish Row fueled by tall tales and short fuses that’s no greater than its parts.

K. Todd Freeman (Sissy Na Na), Kate Buddeke (Tanya), Judith Roberts (Miss Ruby) and Scott Jaeck (Wayne) in Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s AIRLINE HIGHWAY, a world premiere by Lisa D’Amour, directed by Joe Mantello. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Among the directionless doings, a wigged-out Sissy Na Na (K. Todd Freeman) opines about his semi-trans’ manifest destiny. Motel manager Wayne (Scott Jaeck) recalls—for no one, it seems—his grandfather’s hat shop and why he turned out to be a bad air-conditioner repairman (but never reveals how he landed work at this Hummingbird roadside attraction). Francis (Gordon Joseph Weiss), a grizzled survivor on a decorated bike, revels in his bad-boy past and present. Effervescent Tanya (Kate Buddeke, redolent with no regrets) bursts into praise for these dynamic denizens: “We are not disposable!”

Carolyn Braver (Zoe) and Caroline Neff (Krista) in Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s AIRLINE HIGHWAY, a world premiere by Lisa D’Amour, directed by Joe Mantello. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Now calling himself “Greg,” the former DJ “Bait Boy” (Stephen Louis Grush) is now a respectable bourgeois in Atlanta (and roundly despised by his bohemian cohorts for selling out). But, as if it was yesterday, he bursts into a misogynistic spat with his stripper “ex” Krista (Caroline Neff), a goodtime/badtime girl who won’t go straight. As a convenient foil, Greg has brought with him his adopted daughter Zoe (Carolyn Braver), a naïve and too trendy teen who’s doing an oral project on this motel’s “subculture.” She doggedly interviews the misfits–which gives the playwright a transparent way to clutter things up with even more exposition.

Toni Martin (ensemble), Jacqueline Williams (ensemble), Kate Buddeke (Tanya), ensemble member K. Todd Freeman (Sissy Na Na), Carolyn Braver (Zoe) and Caroline Neff (Krista)

When she finally emerges on a stretcher from her motel room, scarlet-wigged Miss Ruby (Judith Roberts, magnificent as a human sunset) gets to make a moral out of this mess (well, at least her “memorial” never becomes a roast). She solemnly speechifies about sex as energy, with God creating fornication so he’d know what it was like to fuck another God. Alas, following Miss Ruby’s swan-song valedictory, the partygoers simply resume their cinematic squabbles.

The cast of Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s AIRLINE HIGHWAY, a world premiere by Lisa D’Amour, directed by Joe Mantello. Photo by Michael Brosilow

Very little of this sound and fury (signifying you know what) exists in its own right. That’s because Airline Highway owes its kidney, lungs, and heart to the many commune comedies that it slavishly or unintentionally imitates. The most blatant antecedents are Lanford Wilson’s Balm in Gilead and Hot l Baltimore (both done at Steppenwolf). These salutes to courageous lowlifes carry much more compassion and less confusion. Equally obvious, earlier creditors are Tennessee Williams’ Camino Real, William Saroyan’s The Time of Your Life, Gorky’s The Lower Depths, Puccini’s La Bohème, not to mention Rent, and Kaufman and Hart’s You Can’t Take It With You.

(top to bottom) Tim Edward Rhoze (Terry) and Caroline Neff (Krista) in Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s AIRLINE HIGHWAY, a world premiere by Lisa D’Amour, directed by Joe Mantello. Photo by Michael Brosilow.But, unlike these better, less atmospheric, precedents, L’Amour doesn’t know when she’s made her case. So, as a kind of desperate editorial, she has Zoe present her findings on this Louisiana “tribe” and how the idiosyncrasies of these colorful outcasts appealed to Zoe’s own contradictions and complexity. “If you pause, and look one of them in the eye, they will take you by the hand and lead you down the rabbit hole.” How’s that for insecure dramaturgy masquerading as dialogue?

Mantello orchestrates this well-intended hoopla with cunning abandon. The trouble is we get energy without urgency and movement without direction. Next to nothing is at stake. The end of an era is not enough. Airline Highway (as generic as its title) couldn’t be more interesting to see or more derivative to hear. It’s never condescending, as Steppenwolf can be, just very, very unfresh.

But, geez, they’re all so damn real because they told us so themselves! They were even more so when Lanford Wilson patented them decades ago and actually made them matter. L’Amour, who has merely rented them, should return to sender.

Caroline Neff (Krista) and Gordon Joseph Weiss (Francis) in Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s AIRLINE HIGHWAY, a world premiere by Lisa D’Amour, directed by Joe Mantello. Photo by Michael Brosilow.photos by Michael Brosilow

Airline Highway
Steppenwolf Theatre Company
Steppenwolf’s Downstairs Theatre
1650 N Halsted St
ends on February 8, 2015
EXTENDED to February 14, 2015
for tickets, call 312-335-1650
or visit www.steppenwolf.org

for more info on Chicago Theater,
visit www.TheatreinChicago.com

{ 2 comments }

Lauren December 17, 2014 at 2:15 pm

Whoops! The actor playing Miss Ruby is Judith Roberts, not Judith Davis. She is magnificent.

Tony Frankel, Editor-in-Chief December 18, 2014 at 1:29 pm

Thanks, Lauren. The change has been made.

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