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'Airline Highway' review: Denizens of New Orleans

Carolyn Braver as "Zoe" in "Airline Highway."

Carolyn Braver as "Zoe" in "Airline Highway." Credit: Joan Marcus

It's hard not to root for "Airline Highway," Broadway's only serious new American play in a spring season obsessed with light comedies and British imports.

Lisa D'Amour's drama, a Steppenwolf production presented at Manhattan Theatre Club's Broadway playhouse, has the sort of big, vibrant cast that's virtually unknown in today's theater economy. D'Amour's heart is with the eloquence of marginalized people -- the strippers, addicts, hookers and, naturally, a drag queen, who live, almost as a messy family, in the Hummingbird Motel, a dilapidated, post-Katrina New Orleans flophouse along the road in the title.

But, really, we have been down such a road far too often before. Most obviously, Lanford Wilson's "Hot L Baltimore" did much the same in 1973 with denizens of a lowlife hotel. Even Steppenwolf made its first New York splash with a 1984 revival of Wilson's 1965 "Balm in Gilead" -- more poetic naturalism for society's losers, but in a cafe.

This story has less original characters and a forced peg. The gang has gathered to have a blowout New Orleans-style "funeral" for Miss Ruby, the classy strip-club owner and dying house mother (the elegantly febrile Judith Roberts) who wants to see it while she is still, barely, alive.

Director Joe Mantello wrings poignant performances from the familiar types with their formulaic tragic backgrounds. The sad but colorful folk often talk at the same time, like family, and hang out in the parking lot of the two-story dump that, of course, is threatened by gentrification. Scott Pask's set includes faded ornamental railings, a car with no wheels and a rickety storm gutter we know is going to unhinge from the roof.

Julie White finds genuine new dark corners as the aging prostitute who wonders "who is gonna remember us?" K. Todd Freeman does the same as the wise, smart-talking drag queen, as does Caroline Neff as the melancholy young stripper. Emotions heat up when her old boyfriend (Joe Tippett) comes back from his new reformed life with his teen stepdaughter (Carolyn Braver).

The girl wants to report on them for her sociology class, which, improbably, leads to people spilling their guts to her. A bacchanal ensues and gets ugly, but not before D'Amour (author of "Detroit," a Pulitzer finalist) spells the whole thing out with a plea to "embrace the incoherence of it all." I wish I could.

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