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Review Roundup: AIRLINE HIGHWAY Opens on Broadway - All the Reviews!

Manhattan Theatre Club's presentation of Steppenwolf Theatre Company's production of Airline Highway, the new play by Pulitzer Prize finalist Lisa D'Amour (Detroit), directed by two-time Tony Award winner Joe Mantello (Casa Valentina, Take Me Out), opens tonight, April 23 at MTC's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre (261 West 47th Street).

The Broadway cast of Airline Highway features Carolyn Braver (Steppenwolf's Leveling Up, "Chicago Fire"), Tony Award nominee and Steppenwolf ensemble member K. Todd Freeman (Steppenwolf's The Song of Jacob Zulu, Fetch Clay/Make Man), Scott Jaeck (Steppenwolf's August: Osage County, The Irish Curse), Ken Marks(Father Comes Home from the Wars), Caroline Neff (Older Children, Steppenwolf's The Way West), Tim Edward Rhoze (Steppenwolf's The Crucible and Wendell Green), Judith Roberts (Present Laughter, "Orange Is The New Black"), Joe Tippett (Ashville, Ghost Brothers of Darkland County), and Tony Award winner Julie White (The Little Dog Laughed, From Up Here).

In the parking lot of The Hummingbird, a once-glamorous motel on New Orleans' infamous Airline Highway, a group of friends gather. A rag-tag collection of strippers, hustlers and philosophers have come together to celebrate the life of Miss Ruby, an iconic burlesque performer who has requested a funeral before she dies. The party rages through the night as old friends resurface to pay their respects.

Let's see what the critics had to say...

Charles Isherwood, The New York Times: Ms. D'Amour's dark comedy...draws a compassionate but unvarnished collective portrait of the underclass of New Orleans, a city where millions of tourists converge to party, little noticing that among the bottles and beads littering the streets are plenty of people who refuse to let the party end, and often pay a hard price for it. The production...brims with humor and pungent life. It features a flawless cast led by the Tony winner Julie White ("The Little Dog Laughed"), whose harrowing performance handily surpasses her superb prior work in lighter comedies. Ms. D'Amour's play has a loose, baggy structure that sometimes works against it, but this aptly reflects the aimlessness of its characters, who live day to day and would rather not think about the unhappy past or the foggy future.

David Rooney, The Hollywood Reporter: In her terrific 2010 play, Detroit, Lisa D'Amour showed gimlet-eyed observation, a spiky sense of humor and a vivid feel for a place and people being left behind by the American Dream...But despite being given a dynamic production with a highly capable cast, this rambling character-driven piece lacks the earlier work's drive and clarity of purpose. While it's a vividly populated canvas, the playwright doesn't do anything much of interest with it...as soulful, alive and frequently funny as D'Amour's characters are, there's also a soggy veil of nostalgia over this gallery of beautiful losers -- hookers, strippers, bartenders, bouncers, drug addicts, dealers, poets and street philosophers. The depiction of these outsiders, with their gritty nobility and purity of heart that remain unseen beyond their community, seems simplistic almost to the point of quaintness.

Elysa Gardner, USA Today: D'Amour does not burden her characters with pity, any more than the elderly burlesque queen who is their matriarch does. To Miss Ruby, made ravaged and regal by the great Judith Roberts, all are "little duckies"...The playwright clearly shares Miss Ruby's compassion for her flock, and her respect for each member's individual dignity...directed with enormous warmth and wit by Joe Mantello, all are drawn with both haunting specificity and an utter lack of sentimentality...Julie White...makes Tanya painfully raw. Her vanity-free performance lets us see the worn, fragile creature lurking behind her forced glamour and genuine kindness...You may not want to join this family, but you will love and honor its members.

Linda Winer, Newsday: 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...This story has less original characters and a forced peg...Director Joe Mantello wrings poignant performances from the familiar types with their formulaic tragic backgrounds...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.

Terry Teachout, Wall Street Journal: ...it's a wholly derivative piece of work that has been knocked together from refurbished spare theatrical parts. Ms. D'Amour might just as well have called it "The Hot L New Orleans, or, An Iceman Named Saroyan"...For all its shameless familiarity, the first act of "Airline Highway" is perfectly watchable, even entertaining, albeit in large part because of the superior acting of the cast, with special honors going to Mr. Freeman, Ms. Neff and Ms. White (the last of whom is incapable of giving a bad performance). Not so the second act, in which Ms. D'Amour pulls out the Tennessee Williams stop and makes her characters emit boozy soliloquies in which they vouch for their own authenticity...

Adam Feldman, Time Out NY: Life spurts out all over the place in the first two thirds of Lisa D'Amour's Airline Highway...Although the characters are familiar in many ways, director Joe Mantello and his accomplished cast of 16 breathe spirit into most of them, and the big, boozy party scene has jazzy vigor. (Freeman and White are standouts.) But D'Amour's dialogue is short on the kind of poetry that might elevate her gallery of beautiful-loser types, and she can't sustain the wide focus she initiates; Airline Highway's multiple plot threads are pulled out (or forgotten) in a rushed, unsatisfying denouement that resorts to summarizing its message to the audience in the form of a (literal) high-school class presentation.

Robert Kahn, NBC New York: Drifting in and out of the crumbling Humming Bird Motel are a half-dozen friends, including Tanya, a prostitute (Tony winner Julie White)...For Tanya, who gave up her own biological children for adoption, the Humming Bird family has become an outlet for nurturing instincts, and White is just lovely as a woman who can't face the decisions of her own past. "Airline Highway" also includes an excellent turn from K. Todd Freeman as Sissy Na Na, a trans bartender who is the play's requisite voice of spiritual wisdom. The raucous party organized by Tanya brings with it much of the energy we associate with the freewheeling city...There aren't any sort of tidy resolutions in "Airline Highway," and we never get the feeling these has-beens at the Humming Bird will pay Miss Ruby any due. They're stuck, but at least they're having a swell time.

Elisabeth Vincentelli, New York Post: Hungry for clichés? "Airline Highway" is chock full of them. A hooker with a heart of gold, a gruff handyman, a sassy gender-bending African-American, a lonely stripper: Every character in this new Broadway show is straight out of central casting. You keep waiting for playwright Lisa D'Amour to put a new spin on those archetypes . . . but no. There's little even the excellent Julie White can do with Tanya, the aging prostitute...There's one fabulous, unexpected scene at the end -- Miss Ruby's address to her troops. Gorgeously lit and hauntingly poetic, it makes you angry for the show's missed opportunities.

Matt Windman, AM New York: "Airline Highway" presents a lively, detailed portrait of a lower class community in the South. But nice as it is to have a wide assortment of colorful characters, the focus too often drifts away from the central players of the plot. It ends with many of the conflicts unresolved. It's no surprise that this production was previously seen at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company, which is renowned for its emphasis on ensemble acting. As directed by Joe Mantello ("Wicked"), the cast delivers detailed, sympathetic performances.

Jesse Green, Vulture: ...Airline Highway, a beautiful and mesmerizing kaleidoscope of a play by Lisa D'Amour... is set in a post-Katrina New Orleans...In Airline Highway, she has evidently sought to split the difference between her devised high-concept work and the kind of traditional narrative that theater companies can actually stage. There are characters you get to know and care about; an event everything points toward; a perceptible conflict leading to a crisis; and at least a quasi-resolution. On the other hand, the play bleeds well beyond those ordinary dramaturgical boundaries...The crisis, too, is unusual: It is not a central overarching one but a series of related realizations, dispersed among the characters. The unusual resolution, bringing together a fantasy sermon from the spectral Miss Ruby with an excerpt from Zoe's finished sociology paper, is, for me, the play's only overindulgence.

Jeremy Gerard, Deadline: You may as well call this "The Motel New Orleans," so clearly does it emulate -- in theme if not execution -- Lanford Wilson's Hotel Baltimore...I don't know how the great Wilson play would hold up today; it was so firmly rooted in the culture of another time and place. But D'Amour, while clearly sympathetic to her characters, conjures a world too neatly balanced, too eccentric, too oddly wholesome. They're types, not people. Under Joe Mantello's expert direction (no one is better at ensemble staging), Airline Highway never reaches the status of powerful Katrina post-mortem it seems to be striving for.

Chris Jones, Chicago Tribune: With most of its stellar original cast from the Steppenwolf Theatrein Chicago intact, Lisa D'Amour's "Airline Highway" moves to Broadway as...a gentle, even sentimental, portrait of those who keep New Orleans humming...D'Amour, whose previous works include another Steppenwolf premiere, "Detroit," has positioned herself as a chronicler of the souls of American towns and cities...But while much of this play, warmly directed both in Chicago and on Broadway by Joe Mantello, is about the lives of those who form a tight community in their cheap hotel, the other side of D'Amour's protective instincts involves the preservation of New Orleans' distinctively outre counterculture.

Ronni Reich, The Star-Ledger: In Lisa D'Amour's "Airline Highway," named for the home to the motel, a group of misfits take care of each other and hold one another back from the vices that tempt them. Each is something like an open wound, with harrowing pasts that have repercussions they can't seem to shake. If its characters can feel familiar, D'Amour's writing unsparingly, unabashedly gets at fundamental aspects of the human condition. There are patches of the drama that drag when everyone talks over one another. But this feels realistic and uncovers something about each character's desire to connect -- however scarred they may be -- over bonds they've formed and broken in the past. Director Joe Mantello creates a detailed world, with nuanced performances from an ensemble cast...

Jonathan Mandell, DC Theatre Scene: There is a feel of improvisation, although everything is scripted. And, while the individual performers get their moments for solos, the play comes off as a collective composition of overlapping voices. The 16 performers work together so effectively in creating the community that hangs around the Hummingbird Motel, that they surely deserve a Tony Award for great ensemble acting...Director Joe Mantello...works hard to orient us to what approximates Robert Altman's style of fly-on-the-wall filmmaking minus the camera. Airline Highway is above all a series of interrelated character portraits, although...the playwright tries to put a thin narrative frame around those portraits.

David Finkle, Huffington Post: In for big praise, considering the size of the cast--all of whom are full of the right kind of personality crochets--is director Joe Mantello, who also helmed Sting's large-crewThe Last Ship earlier this season. Aided by designer Japhy Weideman's lighting, he directs the constant Airline Highway traffic with immeasurable facility, maximizing the downbeat, while frantic, motel life.

Robert Hofler, The Wrap: 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.

Joe Dziemianowicz, NY Daily News: With all that potential, "Highway" is a road to nowhere that's potholed with contrived storytelling and characters from Central Casting. The only part of this long, meandering byway you'll want to use is the exit ramp. Blame two companies: Manhattan Theatre Club and Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre, where the show ran earlier this year. Yes, "Airline Highway" is a nod to affectionate and human group portraits of everyday lives, such as Lanford Wilson's "The Hot l Baltimore," but D'Amour's tale of modern-day, down-and-out New Orleans is missing a clear point and satisfying takeaway.

Marilyn Stasio, Variety: They really know how to throw a party in New Orleans. The rowdy bash in Lisa D'Amour's "Airline Highway" is a real blowout, and the disorderly partygoers seem to be having great fun. But like a lot of all-night parties, this one doesn't stand up to the light. The scribe has installed a well-observed group of misfits and losers in the Hummingbird Motel, a haven for social outcasts. But aside from throwing her makeshift family that state-of-the-art shindig, she doesn't give them much to do - or let them do anything for themselves.

Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

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