Theater Review | AIRLINE HIGHWAY by Lisa D’Amour at Steppenwolf

In deciding to photographically render the grand old, Tequila-soaked Hummingbird Motel and its residents in exquisite, grungy detail on stage (right down to the broken coke machine and abandoned car), Lisa D’Amour’s huge new play at Steppenwolf gets drawn into recreating a simulacrum of the reality we think we know – as opposed to creating something new and uniquely theatrical that we feel. The scale of Scott Pask’s delectable set, which is really the star here and significantly upstages the play text, puts the focus on look over substance, and atmosphere over real drama. In a quest for supposed authenticity, what gets lost is an actual experience. Perhaps better suited to film, AIRLINE HIGHWAY is a humorous, winding examination of the Hummingbird’s world on the day of a New Orleans style send off funeral for den mother Miss Ruby, but does not offer much new. Also, the pitfalls and perils of retailing lifestyles of the poor and unknown (at significant cost) to America’s elite theatre audience are very much in evidence.

3-stars

Up all night yet again.  The cast of AIRLINE HIGHWAY on Scott Pask's incredible set for the Hummingbird Motel.  Photo: Michael Brosilow.
Up all night yet again. The cast of AIRLINE HIGHWAY on Scott Pask’s incredible set for the Hummingbird Motel. Photo: Michael Brosilow.

For an example of how tricky the business of portraying the American “underclass” on today’s mainstream stage can be, you need look no further than the program for Steppenwolf’s production of AIRLINE HIGHWAY by Lisa D’Amour.

On the cover, there’s a clean image of three characters from the show in all their ragged fabulousness. The only text is the name of the play and theatre. Beautiful.

And then you turn the page.

The inside spread features, on the left, an ad from @properties, a Chicago real estate firm, with a svelte older woman in a stylish leopard print dress: “You show your style in many ways, not the least of which is your home. You deserve a broker who gets that; a broker who gets you.” Want to know more? Contact the Luxury Portfolio International division.

On the right, it’s a message from MB Financial Bank, offering help with your wealth management and capital markets needs: “When you work hard there are wonderful rewards. For some it’s the sound of applause, and for others it’s the satisfaction of a business well run.” Somewhat incongruously, the photo there is of an ethnically diverse bouquet of young actors on stage – likely not the core target market for the bank’s services.

Turn the page again.

Now you’re staring down a gleaming white aristo male model in black tie who could have stepped right out of THE GREAT GATSBY. If you need such an outfit – or lifestyle – simply head on over to Paul Stuart on Lasalle.

Flip a few more pages, and it’s an advert for Christie’s: “From fine arts to fine estates”. Presumably you have a taste for both, yes?

You get the picture.

It’s not necessarily a problem. It’s the way things are. The American theatre needs money, and these are the companies (and patrons) that have it. But in such an institutional setting, in front of audience members who may have strolled the 1/4 mile to Steppenwolf from their Viennese villas on N. Burling in Chicago’s beautiful .001%-er Lincoln Park neighborhood, the idea that any engaging or provocative treatment of the colorful down and out of New Orleans could be staged is a bit of a fantasy – the stuff of theatre.

Just keepin' it real with the folks down on N. Burling in Chicago's Lincoln Park neighborhood, a four minute walk from Steppenwolf.  That's a private home, not a museum.
Just keepin’ it real with the folks down on N. Burling in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood, a four minute walk from Steppenwolf. That’s a private home, not a museum.

In real life, the characters at The Hummingbird Motel in D’Amour’s massive undertaking are about as remote as it’s possible to be from the audience at Steppenwolf (or on Broadway, where the play heads next). While many in the audience may need some of those services on offer in the program, no one up on stage is going to be buying a house that says something about their style or ringing up a financial advisor any time soon. The experience on offer here, then, risks becoming the kind of tourist visit to N’awlins that the saucy characters gathering to celebrate Miss Ruby’s life would decry in an instant (while tossing back a shot of Jameson): grab a few strings of beads, snap some photos, and head home with no lasting understanding of the place or its people and problems.

For a contemporary playwright in the financially straitened and scaled back American theatre, D’Amour has been given a mind-boggling length of runway to work with for this show. With a core cast of nine (and 21 total for the party), this is the kind of blank slate you get at only a very few theatres on earth – most of them in the UK. Steppenwolf has given the playwright complete freedom and resources, which is exactly what real theatre institutions should be doing. Unfortunately the scale and scope of the playwright’s vision fall short of the producing theatre’s level of support and confidence.

After a few more drinks it'll work.  Kate Buddeke (Tanya), Caroline Neff (Krista) and Stephen Louis Grush (Bait Boy).  Photo: Michael Brosilow.
After a few more drinks it’ll work. Kate Buddeke (Tanya), Caroline Neff (Krista) and Stephen Louis Grush (Bait Boy). Photo: Michael Brosilow.

AIRLINE HIGHWAY is a kind of collage, a day in the life at the Hummingbird. But it’s no ordinary day. Today is the sendoff funeral for 85 year old legendary burlesque performer Miss Ruby (Judith Roberts) – and she’s not even dead yet. For Miss Ruby wanted a funeral before she dies. And you can be sure her many friends and devotees are going to show up for a proper all nighter. Miss Ruby lies dying in a room upstairs at the grit-encrusted Hummingbird, and we don’t see her until her crucial monologue late in the show.

“In the beginning, there was sex.” Judith Roberts (Miss Ruby) . Photo: Michael Brosilow.

As dawn breaks (and dawn is more likely to herald the end of the day in NOLA than the beginning), the faithful start to gather. Many of them don’t have to come from much farther away than a few doors down at the Hummingbird. There’s the motel manager Wayne (Scott Jacek), who tries to keep the rent payments from residents coming in while pretending not to know the real nature of trade that draws a steady stream of male visitors to the room of Tanya (Kate Buddeke) – often for only the briefest of spells. There’s Terry (Tim Edward Rhoze), a wannabe handyman and fixit guy who tries to sell little improvement project ideas for the Hummingbird to Wayne. There’s the complicated and compelling Krista (Caroline Neff), one of the central figures in the story who as we learn may have sunk even lower than living at the Hummingbird. There’s Francis (Gordon Joseph Weiss), a crazed and chemically altered beat poet on a bike, still channeling his inner Kesey. And behold Sissy Na Na (K. Todd Freeman), a trannie with a plannie performer.

K. Todd Freeman is Sissy Na Na.  Photo: Michael Brosilow.
K. Todd Freeman is Sissy Na Na. Photo: Michael Brosilow.

These folks have a long history with each other. They’re moving through time one step away from complete indigence, working at bars and strip joints, wrangling karaoke. And of course partying quite a bit. A running joke through the play is the prospect of life in the bland and denatured Atlanta, a kind of corporate bugbear for the group compared to the still pulsing authenticity of New Orleans. And lo – as the party approaches we learn there is going to be a visitor from Atlanta. Bait Boy (Stephen Louis Grush) is a former member of the fold who moved away to get respectable. He married a well off “cougar” (somehow) and has been trying to pass for middle class ever since. Bait Boy has been summoned back by Sissy Na Na for Miss Ruby’s funeral and for some reason heeds the call. Bait Boy and Krista were together for years, and she is not happy to hear he is due. With Bait Boy (who now wants people to call him by his real name of Greg) comes Zoe (Carolyn Braver), his 16 year old step daughter.

Zoe has a sociology assignment for school to study “sub cultures”, and so she decides to accompany Bait Boy to interview the exotic denizens of the Hummingbird. Throughout the play, Zoe’s probing questions with various members of the ensemble further the exposition and backstory, though the whole device feels fairly voyeuristic and may be best understood as an unintentional critique of the audience’s relation to and remove from the characters, who are always kept well behind the glass.

A sociological study of sub cultures.  Carolyn Braver (Zoe) and Caroline Neff (Krista) .  Photo: Michael Brosilow.
A sociological study of sub cultures. Carolyn Braver (Zoe) and Caroline Neff (Krista) . Photo: Michael Brosilow.

The genius teenage girl character has a kind of talismanic appeal for female playwrights. They seem to pop up everywhere, whip smart, wise beyond their years, impossibly self-assured. There’s some of that quality in Zoe. It doesn’t make a lot of sense that she would be there interviewing hookers (you wonder how Greg spun the trip to her mother), but we sort of roll with it. Inevitably, late in the play there’s a moment where one of the older men jokingly tries to interest Zoe in a room. Mercifully we don’t go there.

Bait Boy’s return provides a lot of the dramatic energy to overturn old rocks and rekindle previous arguments, and this is a good thing in the otherwise fairly static world of the Hummingbird. The dead motel could drone along forever in its current state – it could be 1987 or 2014. When Bait Boy comes back, interesting questions about the success of his own escape are raised. But for the same reasons that Bait Boy’s entrance carries a charge that cuts to the heart of some of the characters’ past drama, it’s hard to understand why he would come back.

Bait Boy isn’t necessarily loved by the larger group. He was a part of the crew back in the day, but he’s not welcomed back with open arms. It’s clear that Bait Boy’s life in Atlanta isn’t going so well. He lives off his rich, older wife and basically hangs around the house. His past relationship with Krista is unresolved for both of them. The two are like the positive ends of two magnets. As soon as one gets close, a level of unhappiness and static rises and provokes a reaction from the other. Krista comes up with a fake story about her life and job to try to impress him, whereas the truth is she is almost homeless.

With the basic dramatic arc of Miss Ruby’s funeral party approaching, the play lumbers into the night. Substances are consumed, it gets loud. At the opening of act 2 there’s a full on party in progress. There’s a group wobble session (a New Orleans dance). Lots of dramatic flair and color. D’Amour makes significant use of overlapping dialogue threads a la Robert Altman. There is not always a single central core action that captures our attention, rather you look around and take in the scene of what is happening. You get the feeling that D’Amour is not always sure herself of the effect she wants – a sense echoed through the annoying use of stage directions as questions: “Does Krista sit on Tanya’s lap?” “Is there a moment where everyone looks at Tanya?” “Does he place the plywood down on the sawhorses here?” etc.

At times all the color feels like nothing more than so much atmosphere. This play may be past its shelf date. Perhaps if it had hit 10-15 years ago, it could have retained some novelty or voice. But so many of the tools in its lineup are common to the point of cliche now. Is there anything more cliched than a set of Mardi Gras beads? Along with the proverbial Hawaiian shirt, you see these festooned on middle age physiques in airport lounges everywhere. America relentlessly recycles authenticity and tries to market any physical signs of deviance. Look no further than the Burning Man industrial complex.

With every school girl now wearing glitter, with purple boas and feathers as standard as the penny loafer used to be, with real trannies on every stage in the land (not just actors playing one), with fabulousness and beads and retro biker jackets available to any and all – big scenes of characters “gettin’ crazy” with these artifacts no longer connote authenticity the way they perhaps once did. Quite the opposite – they risk becoming about as new and authentic as that Jimmy Buffet guy in the airport bar with the green beads and sandals and thinning hair. Which raises the interesting question – what does constitute a sub culture in today’s America? What does personal authenticity look like? Is it still possible to go to New Orleans and have an authentic experience? Perhaps if you got held up.

The past is alive.  Stephen Louis Grush (Bait Boy) and Caroline Neff (Krista).  Photo: Michael Brosilow.
The past is alive. Stephen Louis Grush (Bait Boy) and Caroline Neff (Krista). Photo: Michael Brosilow.

As in DETROIT, D’Amour seems drawn to chronicling a certain strand of downwardly mobile, predominantly white, America. There’s a sense of elegy in the air, a changing of the guard for a forgotten slice of people off the beaten paths. But the idea that these characters’ fates are preordained by a system they can’t control, that their bad choices have nothing to do with their lot in life, is hard to buy. Using Atlanta as an example, the city has become a magnet for software engineers from India. While many Americans may have no higher hopes for the day than smoking a bowl or doing shots of Jack Daniels, for immigrants with a work ethic, this is still the land of endless opportunity, as it will always be. What’s preventing Greg from getting a job or learning a new skill? Maybe just a lack of IQ points.

While visiting the category of large cast theatre, which can be hugely satisfying when it does come off, it’s worth recalling another recent play about a band of outsiders on the margin who know how to party and hold forth outrageously, and that’s Jez Butterworth’s JERUSALEM. Butterworth created a world and identity so clear it literally brought all of England to its feet. It is that experience and transformative identification we wish would happen with an undertaking as large as AIRLINE HIGHWAY could be, but unfortunately the story here is much, much slighter. Sure, Butterworth used some atmosphere and another great set, but by and large he worked his magic through language, the kind of memorable speech that fills the biggest stage of them all: our imagination.

There are some smaller missteps and off key notes. Miss Ruby is 85 but somehow has a son who died in Iraq. The idea that a wealthy older woman would be drawn to Bait Boy – a retired bouncer with tattoos and no skills – seems implausible. Throughout the party there are a few references to an “Irish Car Bomb”, which is about as funny and politically correct a name for a bar drink as “World Trade Center Fireball”, “Mississippi Lynch Mob” or “Matthew Shepard Fencepost” would be.

This play draws on what D’Amour calls the “meat and potatoes” style of acting at Steppenwolf. And in the grand main downstairs theatre there were plenty of visually memorable and funny moments. But Broadway? With no stars and such a rambling, uneventful plot line, it’s hard to see how this will work at Manhattan Theatre Club. What will the bus loads of senior citizens from New Jersey take away from watching the crew at the Hummingbird hold forth? Will it be any more genuine an experience than a trip to the Bronx Zoo? Is all we’re looking for a little shot of nutty color before lunch at the Ground Round?

Meanwhile, as the Broadway marketing machine starts cranking into gear, expect to see the play dragged as far as possible toward a generic “let the good times roll in NOLA” story line as possible, which is weird because that is so not what the play is about. The Broadway trailer already feels like a Michelob commercial for Mardi Gras or a promo for a Harley Davidson trip to “get me some N’awlins”. Watch that video and feel the genericized experience being created. Would a Louisiana state board of tourism piece be any different?

New Orleans, we never knew ya. Somewhere along your glitter strewn streets of invented self and lost souls and paths less travelled, no doubt there is something real, something new, something that challenges the generic authenticity of the American marketing machine. But to find out we may all in the end have no other choice than to actually go there in the flesh and have a real experience.

-Win Goodbody

The marketing machine is already doing to the play what it did to New Orleans.
The marketing machine is already doing to the play what it did to New Orleans.
A funeral, New Orleans style.  Photo: Michael Brosilow.
A funeral, New Orleans style. Photo: Michael Brosilow.
Toni Martin (ensemble), Jacqueline Williams (ensemble), Kate Buddeke (Tanya), K. Todd Freeman (Sissy Na Na), Carolyn Braver (Zoe) and Caroline Neff (Krista).  Photo: Michael Brosilow.
Toni Martin (ensemble), Jacqueline Williams (ensemble), Kate Buddeke (Tanya), K. Todd Freeman (Sissy Na Na), Carolyn Braver (Zoe) and Caroline Neff (Krista). Photo: Michael Brosilow.
K. Todd Freeman (Sissy Na Na), Kate Buddeke (Tanya), Judith Roberts (Miss Ruby) and Scott Jaeck (Wayne) .  Photo: Michael Brosilow.
K. Todd Freeman (Sissy Na Na), Kate Buddeke (Tanya), Judith Roberts (Miss Ruby) and Scott Jaeck (Wayne) . Photo: Michael Brosilow.
Tim Edward Rhoze (Terry) and Caroline Neff (Krista).  Photo: Michael Brosilow.
Tim Edward Rhoze (Terry) and Caroline Neff (Krista). Photo: Michael Brosilow.
Caroline Neff (Krista) and Gordon Joseph Weiss (Francis).  Photo: Michael Brosilow.
Caroline Neff (Krista) and Gordon Joseph Weiss (Francis). Photo: Michael Brosilow.