A couple of years back, Lisa D’Amour’s “Detroit” was a breakout hit at Playwrights Horizons, winning the Obie Award for Best New American Play and named a Pulitzer finalist. The four-character work was hailed as an incisive portrait of suburban angst and socioeconomic friction.
Now, the astute playwright has set her sights on New Orleans with “Airline Highway,” which recently opened at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Broadway venue, the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. The darkly comic drama with musical interludes is a love letter to D’Amour’s cherished home city and focuses on, well, urban angst and socioeconomic friction.
You might say the ambitious “Airline Highway” is a family affair. Not only does it feature a cast of 16 portraying a motley crew of misfits living in a dilapidated motel who form a makeshift family after being shunned by their own, but one of those actors is D’Amour’s charismatic brother, Todd.
The play’s premise, like the flood-prone city itself, is unsettlingly precarious. Colorful residents of the Hummingbird Motel gather in the parking lot for a funeral for Miss Ruby (Judith Roberts) — never mind that their beloved, elderly matriarch is still very much alive. Apparently, the ailing Miss Ruby requested a funeral while she could still witness it. “Why do we have to wait until we’re in the coffin for people to say nice things about us?,” somebody muses.
Naturally, crepe paper streamers, a disco ball, colored lights, and Mardi Gras beads are involved. At one point, the gathering erupts in a slow-groove local dance favorite called the Wobble.
Attempting to capture the swirl and randomness of everyday life, the story is a glorious jumble of plot threads and overlapping dialogue. The most fabulous resident is a black transgender performer in a Bourbon Street karaoke joint called Sissy Na Na (K. Todd Freeman), as warm-hearted as she is sharp-tongued. The over-the-hill Tanya (a marvelously haggard Julie White), who turns tricks and struggles with substance abuse, is in charge of the event. Krista (Caroline Neff) is a stripper still in love with her ex-boyfriend, Bait Boy (Joe Tippett), who has returned to pay his respects with his rich new girlfriend’s teen daughter, Zoe (Carolyn Braver), in tow. Terry (Tim Edward Rhoze) convinces longtime motel manager Wayne (Scott Jaeck) to allow him to repair the gutter pipe for a few bucks.
If only there were a solid through-line. Offhand questions concerning how the celebration will turn out, if Krista and Bait Boy will get back together, and if Tanya will suffer a relapse are not compelling enough to drive a Broadway play. And we can see what will happen to that old gutter pipe from a mile away.
Under the inventive direction of Joe Mantello (“Other Desert Cities”) the spirited ensemble works mighty hard to pull off moments that are by turns spontaneous, raucous, and tender, though at times the results feel labored. Great care is taken to switch up the clichés, adding unexpected quirks and character flaws, though tropes are unavoidable (a play honoring New Orleans is pretty much unthinkable without endearing eccentrics, funky jazz music, and — yes — those Mardi Gras beads).
At its best, “Airline Highway” is eager to embrace the authenticity that’s being driven out by capitalism and greed (a Costco and a fancy health spa are going up across the street, casting a shadow on the humble motel, built in the 1940s). It celebrates living in the moment and finding a kind of poetry in the downtrodden, crazy quilt of humanity living on the margins of society. On this stage, compassion rules over disdain.
The realistic set of the run-down, two-story motel façade, by Scott Pask, is a voyeur’s delight, allowing glimpses into sordid lives. Is that drug-dealer guy (Todd D’Amour) smoking crack while he watches Popeye cartoons? The shabby costumes, by David Zinn, add much-needed flavor to the proceedings.
Perhaps the strongest subplot involves Zoe, a bright, inquisitive high school student writing an essay on American subculture for her sociology class. Brandishing a smartphone and iPad, she lives several rungs up the economic ladder, and the motel residents eye her with suspicion.
“Subculture,” Sissy Na Na sniffs, not bothering to conceal her contempt. “You mean you are the ‘culture’ and you are coming down to us.”
Preparing for the festivities, it takes Zoe but a few minutes to untangle a string of multicolored lights and arrange them into neat coils. If only untangling the intricate problems of everyday life were so simple.
AIRLINE HIGHWAY | Manhattan Theatre Club | Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St. | Tue.-Wed. at 7 p.m.; Thu.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat.-Sun. at 2 p.m. | $67-$130 at telecharge.com or 212-239-6200 | Two hrs., 15 mins., with intermission