Thursday, April 30, 2015

Monday, April 27, 2015

200 (2014-2015): Review of DOCTOR ZHIVAGO (seen April 24, 2015)

“Is There a Doctor in the House?”

When Boris Pasternak’s epic romantic novel, DOCTOR ZHIVAGO, was published in Milan in 1957 (it was considered too anti-Soviet to be published in its homeland) it caused a worldwide sensation and became an instant best seller. Pasternak, already renowned as a great poet, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958, but was pressured by the Soviet government to refuse it. In 1965 director David Lean turned the novel into a three-hour, 20-minute movie (intermission included) with an all-star, mostly British, cast, including Julie Christie as Lara Antipov, Omar Sharif as Yuri Zhivago, Rod Steiger as Komarovsky, Geraldine Chaplin as Tonya Gromeko, Ralph Richardson as her father, Siobhan McKenna as her mother, Tom Courtenay as Pasha/Strelnikov, and Alec Guinness as Yuri’s half-brother, Yevgraf. (Note: the spellings of some names in the movie differ from those in the Broadway show reviewed here.)
Kelli Barrett, Tam Mutu. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
One of the chief criticisms of the film was the passivity of Zhivago and Lara, the romantic leads, which matched my own opinion after a recent viewing. This pervasive passivity of the soulful, saintly hero and heroine has been transferred to the new Broadway musical version of the novel. Regardless of the book’s reputation, its once-controversial political subject, the opportunity for spectacle, and the movie’s lushly romantic “Lara’s Theme” (by Maurice Jarre), one still must wonder what inspired this adaptation, with its book by Michael Weller, lyrics by Michael Korie and Amy Powers, and music by Lucy Simon (sister of Carly). Reportedly, the project has been evolving for almost twenty years!
From left: Paul Alexander Nolan, Kelli Barrett, Tam Mutu, Lora Lee Gayer. Photo: Matthew Murphy. 
This isn’t to say there isn’t a lot of drama in DOCTOR ZHIVAGO, but the drama is attenuated over three decades, with soap opera coincidences, numerous plot developments, and—unless you care very much about whether or not Zhivago and Lara’s love affair will succeed—no continuing central conflict other than the struggle to survive Russia’s political and human maelstrom before, during, and after World War I and the Russian Revolution. The Revolution itself provides opportunities for plenty of action, and some historically interesting speechifying, but it all gets swallowed up in the rush of events, the relentless piling on of one big power ballad after the other, and the ravenous needs of the physical production. Subtitles are necessary to help the audience keep up with the march of time.
Tam Mutu. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
Musicals based on thick historical novels (this one is over 700 pages) are a tricky business, and very few shows are able—like Boublil and Schönberg’s LES MISÉRABLES—to find the correct proportion of plot, character, history, music, and spectacle to hit the bulls-eye. And, unlike LES MIZ, to which its mixture of revolution, personal relationships, and big balladry has been compared, DOCTOR ZHIVAGO is insistently serious, the only number having a touch of humor being “It’s a Godsend,” which is as far from Boublil and Schönberg’s comic delight, “Master of the House,” as Moscow is from Siberia.  
Tom Hewitt. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
The show abandons the movie’s framing device of flashing back to the lovers’ story by having Yuri’s half-brother, a KGB officer, investigate whether a girl he’s been looking for is the daughter of the now deceased Lara and Yuri; still, it hews fairly closely to the plotline the movie devised for cutting through the novel’s multiple stories and characters. The reliance on the movie’s onetime popularity is further suggested by inserting “Lara’s Theme” into the score (with the “Somewhere My Love” lyrics that were later added by Paul Francis Webster) and by the show's advertising image of a woman’s beautiful eyes framed in white fur and snow; the latter seems strongly influenced by a streetcar scene in which Lean’s camera focuses on Julie Christie’s eyes (albeit framed in black, not white). “Lara’s Theme”—sung as a folk song, first in Russian, and then in English, by a group of nurses—really doesn’t fit the tone created by Ms. Simon’s score, and its placement seems awkward, but its haunting melody is not matched by the other, more operatic, numbers on display.
Julie Christie in the movie, DOCTOR ZHIVAGO.
The basic story—some of whose sequences are raced through in telegraph-style to get them out of the way—begins (and ends) with a graveside scene of Lara and their child at Yurii’s funeral in 1930, then flashes back to the funeral of young Yurii’s (Jonah Halperin) mother in 1903, when he’s taken in to be cared for by her friends, Alexander (Jamie Jackson) and Anna Gromeko (Jacqueline Antaramian), who raise him alongside their daughter, young Tonia (Ava-Riley Miles). By 1914, these small children have (rather implausibly) grown into a handsome doctor (Tam Mutu), with a growing reputation as a poet, and a beautiful young woman (Lora Lee Gayer), who are destined to marry and have kids. We’re also introduced to the exquisite Lara Guishar (Kelli Barrett), daughter of the dress shop owner, Mrs. Guishar (Pilar Milhollen), who becomes the prey of her mother’s friend, the powerful lawyer Komarovsky (Tom Hewitt). Lara, however, loves and marries the idealistic revolutionary, Pasha Antipov (Paul Alexander Nolan). Before long the lawyer seduces Lara, she wounds him but he refuses to press charges, World War I breaks out, the Revolution erupts, Pasha becomes a vengeful Bolshevik, Lara (now a nurse’s aide) and Yurii meet while she’s searching for Pasha on the front, an affair between Lara and Yurii follows when they each move to the distant Urals, Yurii writes poetry inspired by Lara, Pasha is thought dead but turns out to be a cruel commander named Strelnikov, Komarovsky reappears in Lara and Yurii’s lives to help them, and, among other happenings, the Communist Reds successfully fight the Tsarist Whites.
Tam Mutu, Kelli Barrett, and Company. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
Just before the final curtain, Lara and the dead Yurii (momentarily alive in Lara’s imagination) sing of their eternal love living “in ray of light, in a distant chime [whatever that is], on the edge of time.” This is not only melodramatic optimism, but unfaithful to the book, since Lara, although she attends Yurii’s funeral, winds up arrested in Stalin’s Great Purge and dying in the Gulag, and the orphaned daughter, Tanya, becomes a laundress.

This sweeping tale of passion and politics, strenuously directed by Des McAnuff, is laid out over two acts on designer Michael Scott-Mitchell’s raked, marble-floored stage. In act one impressive columns move on and off to encase both indoors and out, so even battle scenes seem to be fought from the confines of imperial Russian hallways. In act two, several bomb-scarred archways, one behind the other, again serve clumsily for interiors and exteriors. The “ice palace” of the abandoned Kruger mansion is a chintzy misfire. An image of chairs piled from floor to ceiling bookends the acts, although why escapes me. Also puzzling are Sean Niewenhuiss’s huge projections of photographs, especially one of Lara looking back over her naked shoulder. Finally, a long, metallic platform, that seems to be floating, revolving, and moving back and forth, serving mainly as a train, ultimately becomes distracting.

Of course, this being a show depicting wartime combat, the stage is often filled with smoke, shafts of powerful lighting (Howell Binkley’s work), explosions, and gunfire. There’s so much Sturm and Drang that both the story of the lovers and the nuances of the politics (critical of the inhuman excesses of the revolutionaries) get pretty much blown up in the process. The film makes the historical issues much clearer.

This isn’t to deny that there’s actually much beauty in the production, nor that, despite its susceptibility to criticism, it isn't enjoyable on some levels. It's certainly not boring, the staging often is visually striking, Paul Tazewell’s many period costumes are sumptuously lovely, and a number of the songs (like “Now” and “It Comes as No Surprise”) deserve to be heard again, although the show needs more musical variety.

The singing is sometimes glorious, but, apart from Mr. Mutu, the acting isn’t very impressive. Ms. Barrett’s Lara, in particular, is dull and noninflected, especially with the memory of Julie Christie (looking totally anachronistic, by the way, for an early 20th-century Russian prole) hanging over her. Tom Hewitt’s Komarovsky is competent, but not special, the way Rod Steiger’s was in the film, and Paul Alexander Nolan is more shouting attitude than breathing person. One problem stems from having the aristocrats speak in British accents and the proletarians in American ones. The latter sound gratingly flat when speaking the stagy dialogue, and diminish the performances of the actors. In the film, even American Rod Steiger did his manful best to sound British for the sake of consistency.
Sophia Genussa, Kelli Barrett. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
There’s a lot of bloodshed and other forms of suffering in DOCTOR ZHIVAGO, but, despite his proficiency at staunching wounds, Dr. Zhivago can’t do much to heal this show. It’s in that spirit that I ask, is there a play doctor in the house?

Then Broadway Theatre
1681 Broadway, NYC
Open run

Sunday, April 26, 2015

199 (2014-2015): Review of IOW@ (seen April 23, 2015)

"Why Oh Why Oh Why-@?"

IOW@, whose too-precious-for-words spelling on the program I’ve seen rendered as IOWA in articles, reviews, tickets, and even on the show's website, is a too-precious-for-words, hour and 45-minute musical play that began as a 20-minute one-act. It took on musical life when playwright Jenny Schwartz got together with composer Todd Almond to workshop it at the Flea Theatre and elsewhere and see how well it worked with songs. What evolved was this surrealistic mishmash of performance styles and vaguely expressed themes about American life today that will appeal only to very special tastes; not mine, however. 

Ms. Schwartz and Mr. Almond’s muddy work (I’d call it a farce if I laughed more than once, and a musical if it had enough music to warrant that description) tells of Becca (Jill Shackner), a 14-year-old with an attractive, cougarish, divorced mother, Sandy (Karyn Quackenbush). Sandy, who can neither get her daughter’s name right (she calls her Bookah, Burqa, whatever) nor her age (she thinks it's 12), is something of a nut job; she’d be more at home in a bowl of almonds (oh, wait, that’s the composer’s name) than on the stage. The plot takes off when she decides to marry Roger, her Facebook catch, whom we hear via a Skype connection on her laptop, but don’t get to meet until the final scene.
Roger lives in Iowa (without the @), so Sandy and the distressed Becca will be moving to the Hawkeye state, requiring Becca to leave her friends and her high school, represented by her bald, middle-aged, math teacher, Mr. Hill (Lee Sellars), for whom she has a thing. Her BFF is the bulimic Amanda (Carolyn Sanchez), and she also befriends a Valley Girlish cheerleader (Annie McNamara), with whom she gets high. Figuring in the murky mélange as well is fictional icon Nancy Drew (April Mathis), here updated as a “hot” African-American (we also meet a Jewish Nancy [Ms. McNamara], a Latina Nancy [Ms. Sanchez], an Asian Nancy [Cindy Cheung], and a transgender Nancy [also Ms. Cheung]).  
Because Sandy likes ponies, a singing one (Mr. Sellars), dressed in a natty suit, a Danny Kaye mop of red hair, a tail, and hooves on his hands and feet, prances in whenever her equine affinity arises. The pony’s hot to trot so he has sex with the cheerleader, but doesn’t use protection, leading to my single laugh when he says it’s because he couldn’t find one that fit. There’s also Becca’s dad (Mr. Sellars), living in London with his British-Asian fiancée (Ms. Cheung), who shows no interest in taking Becca in after his fiancée mentions she’s pregnant. When Sandy and the finally resigned-to-go Becca reach the blue skies and cornfields of Iowa and meet Roger, he turns out to be the polygamous husband of four sister wives (Mses. Sanchez, Mathis, McNamara, and Cheung), although the word “Mormon” is never breathed. By the way, Sandy at one point wears a burqa, the cheerleader eats hay, and there’s a little girl who wants to go to Mars.
Becca’s journey, structured around scenes of home, school, and Iowa, uses language that often rushes along in a river of stream-of-consciousness free association, using quirky word play that, while impressive in the abstract, removes the characters and situations from any sense of reality. Much of it is clever, but none of it’s tied to anything emotionally affecting.
Ken Rus Schmoll’s overheated direction underlines and exaggerates the craziness, and you may, like the couple next to me, choose to depart after the first 20 minutes during much of which Sandy rambles on at Mach-speed in a logorrheic, endless outpouring of antic dialogue shouted like a demented Gilbert Gottfried. Meanwhile, Becca and Amanda stand nearby, facing the audience and speaking more like Gottfried-clones than human beings, with occasional infusions from Roger on the laptop.
Soon enough, the nonsense quotient builds to the point that you don’t really care anymore about who these people are and why you should be concerned about them, which is a shame, because not only are there are ideas and feelings present that might have been worth considering, but each member of the company (including the adorable young Kolette Tetlow who plays Becca as a child) is highly talented and clearly committed to the material, no matter how bizarre or ridiculous much of it may seem.
Sitting upstage right on Dane Laffrey’s essentially neutral set of a polished wood floor and a backdrop of vertical blinds (that eventually open to reveal an Iowan landscape), is a bass, viola, and piano trio to accompany the songs, few of which stand out amid the weird shenanigans. Arnulfo Maldonado’s costumes are all worthy, especially the pony’s and the long, pastel-colored dresses of the sister wives. None of this, of course, prevents one from wondering why oh why oh why-@ Playwrights Horizons chose to produce IOW@.

Peter Jay Sharp Theatre at Playwrights Horizons
416 West 42nd Street, NYC
Through May 10

Saturday, April 25, 2015

198 (2014-2015): Review of HAND TO GOD (seen April 25, 2015)

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197 (2014-2015): Review of FINDING NEVERLAND (seen April 25, 2015)

“I Don’t Gotta Crow!”

Making a musical out of PETER PAN OR THE BOY WHO WOULD NOT GROW UP, Scottish playwright and novelist James M. Barrie’s famous Edwardian play, is one thing. The story’s filled with colorful characters and oodles of action and adventure, offering countless opportunities for imaginative stage excitement. Making a musical out of the travails of its author to write his 1904 play (later novelized) is another, but that’s what Broadway’s FINDING NEVERLAND seeks, with limited success, to do.

The beautifully designed, occasionally spectacular effort, whose lead producer is Hollywood honcho Harvey Weinstein making his Broadway bow, makes use of enchanting special effects, and—after a lengthy, troubled period of pre-New York gestation—is proving to be a crowd pleaser, despite many (but not universally) negative reviews, and seems to have a healthy future as a family entertainment. Although not a Disney production, it has a Disney touch about it, with its two-dimensional characters, melodramatic elements, and sentimental book pumped into full-blown theatrical life with all the resources a big budget and elaborate staging—the work of director Diane Paulus and choreographer Mia Michaels—can provide.
Matthew Morrison, Jack (the dog), Aidan Gemme. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Based on the boring (I thought) 2004 movie of the same name—starring Johnny Depp as Barrie; Kate Winslet as Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, mother of the “lost boys” who inspired Barrie’s story; Julie Christie as her socially prominent mother, Mrs. du Maurier; and Dustin Hoffman as hard-nosed American producer Charles Frohman—the show features Matthew Morrison (“Glee”) as a bearded Barrie (who wore a mustache, not a beard, and because of dwarfism, was only 4’10”), Laura Michelle Kelly as Davies, Carolee Carmello as du Maurier, and Kelsey Grammer as Frohman. The film was based loosely on Allan Knee’s little-known play, THE MAN WHO WAS PETER PAN.
Foreground, from left: Tyley Ross, Kelsey Grammer, Teal Wicks, Matthew Morrison. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
FINDING NEVERLAND, for all its historical distortions, is the Peter Pan origin story set to the mostly unmemorable music and lyrics of Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy. If, despite the recent hit production of PETER AND THE STARCATCHER and the TV revival of the 1954 musical PETER PAN, starring Allison Williams, you still haven’t got your fill of the kid in the green tights, then you probably haven’t grown up and still believe in fairies (I know, I know), or you want your kids to (is that really such a good idea?). Perhaps FINDING NEVERLAND will help you kick the habit.
FINDING NEVERLAND company. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
You can't expect a show about Barrie's play not to spend some time showing what the fuss is about, and this is mainly provided when, at the end, a tab version is performed for the benefit of the dying Sylvia in the confines of her bedroom following the play’s opening night performance. There also are several briefer infusions of Peter Pan material, such as the opening number where a dancing Peter (Melanie Moore) offers some Pannish maneuvers, or when Captain Hook—Frohman’s imagined alter ego—dons the metal claw and pirate gear in fantasy sequences, most memorably in the grandiose conclusion to act one, when pirate ship rigging and billowing sails fill the stage and Barrie poses amidst a group of buccaneers like a revolutionary on the ramparts in LES MISÉRABLES. When the curtain falls on that impressive scene you have to marvel at all the ingenuity (and money) that’s been spent to dramatize so earth-shattering a dilemma as a writer’s struggles to compose a new script. The scene epitomizes how effectively Ms. Paulus's staging manages to distract you from the story’s thinness. Among the clever choreographic delights are several sequences when characters squeeze together in interestingly packed formations, including under a long table, like something from stylized Russian theatre of the 1920s.
From left: Sawyer Nunes, Alex Dreier, Laura Michelle Kelly, Aidan Gemme, Christopher Paul Richards. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The plot shows how the previously successful Barrie suddenly finds himself flailing after the failure of his latest play, THE WEDDING GUEST. With the insistent Frohman breathing down his neck for something new, and unable to come up with an idea that isn’t somehow a rehash of his established work, he has the good fortune to meet the lively Llewelyn Davies children, George* (the oldest), Peter (grieving for his late dad but showing writerly potential), Jack, and Michael (the youngest) in Kensington Park. (A fifth lad was too young to make the cut for the movie and show.) Being himself still very much a child at heart (and stuck in a childless marriage to the stuffy Mary Barrie [Teal Wicks]), he bonds with them as their master playmate, making up adventurous games, while also becoming the close friend of their beautiful, recently widowed mother, Sylvia. Gossip, of course, soon follows, and Barrie must fend off the meddling of Sylvia’s high-toned mother, Mrs. du Maurier. It’s Sylvia whose early death brings the schmaltzy book to a heart-tugging finish, as she moves on to more heavenly comforts while a remarkable cone of fairy dust in which a silky gold garment swirls about asks us to believe in—the afterlife?
Center: Matthew Morrison; right: Kelsey Grammer. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Well before that happens, however, Barrie’s relationship with the boys and Sylvia sparks his creation of the Peter Pan story, which explores not just the childhood imaginations of the boys, but also that of the boy still inside the man. But before it can be produced, he must convince the skeptical Frohman of its stage worthiness, while also dealing with Mary’s intimacy with the pompous Lord Cannan (Tyley Ross), his own divorce from Mary, and his attraction to Sylvia. (Some of this is true, some spurious, and all of it historically compressed.)
Matthew Morrison, Laura Michelle Kelly. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
We also see Frohman’s London acting company rehearsing PETER PAN, replete with flamboyantly self-centered hams, whose overdone histrionics don’t do the show any favors. Finally, the show goes on and, of course, turns out to be a huge success. (It ran at the Duke of York’s Theatre for a profitable 145 performances and was often revived in England and abroad.)
Matthew Morrison, Kelsey Grammer. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The handsome Mr. Morrison, despite the romantic phoniness of his character, offers a suitably restrained Barrie, and his respectable acting skills are suitably matched by an excellent singing voice. Mr. Grammer’s Frohman is far more the drolly elegant, aphorism-dropping, gentleman than the man he’s based on, but he brings a strong theatrical presence to the role and is deliciously wicked in the guise of Captain Hook; it's too bad he gets one of his biggest laughs on a line referencing his old TV show, “Cheers.” Both Ms. Kelly, a British star, as the sweetly alluring, tragically afflicted Sylvia, and Ms. Carmello, as her imperiously protective mother, act and sing their conventional roles superbly, the kids are slick pros, and the ensemble is high quality.

Some of the songs are pleasant enough in a familiar sort of way (“Neverland” among them), but few are outstanding or especially original, either for their lyrics, their music, or their integration into the story. Their titles alone suggest how standardized are their emotions and ideas: “Believe,” “All That Matters,” “What You Mean to Me,” “We’re All Made of Stars,” and so on, including an uncomfortable “Circus of Your Mind” that serves only to remind us of the similarly titled but far superior Jacques Brel classic.

The biggest drag is James Graham’s mawkish and only fitfully amusing book, which at one point even descends to shamelessly copycat Abbot and Costello’s classic baseball routine, with the participants confusing the word “darling” and the name Darling. Oh, for the days when throwing tomatoes was acceptable.

Scott Pask’s lovely and abundant scenery, Kenneth Posner’s exceptional lighting, Jon Driscoll’s magical projections, Suttirat Anne Larlarb’s exquisite costumes, Paul Kieve’s “illusions,” Daniel Wurtzel’s “air sculptures,” and all the other technical and design elements—including the Tinkerbell effect and a small amount of flying—help satisfy the masses, but none of the stage trickery on display can disguise the fact that FINDING NEVERLAND’s rather undramatic story has been inflated with show biz expertise to seem more exciting than it really is.

As everyone knows, PETER PAN has a scene when Tinkerbell is dying, and the audience is asked to clap to show they believe in fairies. Naturally, that scene is here, but if I ever see it again, I promise to sit on my hands.

*George alternates among Sawyer Nunes, Jackson Demott Hill, and Christopher Paul Richards; Peter alternates among Aidan Gemme, JacFkson Demott Hill, and Christopher Paul Richards; Jack alternates among Alex Dreier, Christopher Paul Richads, and Hayden Signoretti; and Michael alternates among Alex Dreier, Noah Hinsdale, and Hayden Signoretti. I saw Mr. Nunes as George, Mr. Gemme as Peter, Mr. Richards as Jack, and Mr. Dreier as Michael.  

Lunt-Fontanne Theatre
205 West 46th Street, NYC
Open run

Friday, April 24, 2015

196 (2014-2015): Review of AIRLINE HIGHWAY (seen April 18, 2015)

"Helter Skelter on the Delta"

 As I watched AIRLINE HIGHWAY at a recent preview, I knew in my bones that this ambitious, well-performed jambalaya of a play by Lisa D'Amour would sharply split critics and audiences. Two friends I ran into during the intermission were deeply unhappy, while their son, an architect, joyously held both thumbs up. Not wishing to commit yet, although I was definitely on the side of the architect's parents, I expressed ambivalence, saying I needed to see the second act before making up my mind. Sorry to say, act two only deepened my disappointment.

AIRLINE HIGHWAY was originally staged for Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre by Joe Mantello, whose excellent production, with certain cast changes, is now being given under the aegis of the Manhattan Theatre Club. It’s set in the parking lot of the Hummingbird Motel, a shabby, down-at-heels resort, once bright pink, now faded beige, located on the eponymous road leading out of New Orleans toward Baton Rouge. Ms. D’Amour, who lived for many years in New Orleans, uses this crumbling motel as the locus for what is essentially a paean to the city’s lively down and outers, the strippers, hookers, burlesque performers, junkies, bartenders, karaoke wranglers, and sexually unconventional denizens who make their living, such as it is, in the French Quarter hangouts catering to the city’s large tourist trade.
AIRLINE HIGHWAY is essentially an atmospheric, character-driven drama in the vein of numerous hotel or barroom plays, like THE HOT L BALTIMORE and THE TIME OF YOUR LIFE, with only the flimsiest of plots or dramatic tension. Set during the city’s annual Jazz Fest, it introduces us to nine mostly troubled souls, with the world around them populated by an ensemble of minor players who busy up the place and give it that uniquely sleazy Big Easy ambience. 
Living or working at, sponging off, or visiting the Hummingbird are the middle-aged Wayne (Scott Jaeck), the longtime manager, who fears it may soon be sold to encroaching developers; Francis (Ken Marks), a grizzled poet with a beatnik vibe, who gets around on a bike he built himself; Tanya (Julie White), an aging prostitute with a painkiller jones; Terry (Tim Edward Rhoze), a black handyman, not too competent, always trying to get Wayne to pay him for fixing something around the joint; Krista (Caroline Neff), an emotionally volatile 30ish stripper, practically homeless after being evicted for being too far behind in her rent; Sissy Na Na (K. Todd Freeman), a sharp-tongued, black transvestite bartender and karaoke wrangler who brooks no fools; Miss Ruby (Judith Roberts), a dying, former burlesque queen in her mid-80s, who ran her own Bourbon Street club and whom everyone idolizes for her wisdom and support; Bait Boy (Joe Tippett), a hunky guy in his 30s, formerly a karaoke wrangler, bouncer, and the like, who fled the place and changed his ways to fit an upscale lifestyle with a well-heeled Atlanta woman, a step for which few—especially Krista, who still carries a torch for him—are readily forgiving; and Zoe (Carolyn Braver), Bait Boy’s presumed 16-year-old stepdaughter, who comes with him to the motel so she can interview the residents for a sociology project about subcultures.
Ms. D’Amour’s characters—each (not just the whore) with a proverbial heart of gold—may not be educated, but they’re all, in their way (including Zoe), preternaturally wise, articulate, and kind. They speak a poetic prose that marks them more as creatures of the stage than life. There are no villains, so to speak, and the chief dramatic clash concerns the presence of Bait Boy (real name Greg, nicknamed because of his reputed fondness for jail bait), considered to have betrayed the community by leaving it for a better life. There seems to be a message here that his grabbing the brass ring of middle-class comfort when he had the chance was an act of selfishness that somehow cast a shadow over everyone he thereby left behind. Bait Boy, himself uncomfortable with his choice, eventually pays a price, after he and Zoe return home, but the entire situation seems contrived to give the play a modicum of conflict. The same could be said of making 16-year-old Zoe a transcriber of the indigenous natives’ lives in order to induce narrative exposition explaining who they are. Listening to some of Zoe's hifalutin responses makes you think of Margaret Mead trapped in a teenybopper’s body.
The chief reason for bringing all these folks together is to celebrate Miss Ruby’s funeral, which she wants held while she's still alive so she can hear “the nice things that people had so say about” her. Before we meet her, the flashily dressed and made-up congregants spend much of act two in the parking lot, now festooned with Mardi Gras-like decorations, celebrating, with upbeat dancing and music. Finally, after much buildup, Ruby's carried down the staircase from her second-story room on a gurney, garishly made up and wearing a flaming red wig over her strikingly white hair. Although she's only fitfully compos mentis, she gets a magic realism moment in which to discourse briefly on her philosophy of life, centering on the ecstasy of being liberated by sex, and then says some endearingly patronizing words to her worshipers about how they’ve fouled up their lives, which, like Catholics seeking absolution, they’re only too happy to imbibe.
The pretentiousness of the speech reminded me of the old joke about the person who goes through all sorts of hardships to ask a wise old guru the meaning of life. In one of the many variations, the old guru answers: “The meaning of life is . . . a fountain.” The questioner then describes all he’s gone through to ask his question, finishing with, “And all you have to say is, life is a fountain?” To which the monk responds: “Life is not a fountain?”
We must take on faith the premise that Miss Ruby somehow gave “this gorgeous group of fuck ups” a reason to live, helping them when they were in need and treating them with compassion when they suffered. This is a family of believers, in fact, who sustain their belief through rituals, such as the dancing and singing they perform in honor of Miss Ruby, the living/dead deity they worship. They will continue to suffer and feel pain, but they’ll always have the memory of Miss Ruby to adulate, and one another to ease the anguish.
The physical production can’t be faulted, with its realistic parking lot (designed by Scott Pask), dilapidated sign, junk car up on blocks, and two-story motel, all of it atmospherically lit by Japhy Weideman. David Zinn’s costumes, especially the wild ones worn during the party sequence, conjure up the New Orleans feeling of chintzy glitz, and Fitz Patton’s music and sound design are in the same spirit, although you won't hear Dixieland in the mix. All the performances shine equally in this ensemble effort, with White and Freeman making the most vivid contributions.
Ms. D'Amour, the only female playwright with a new play on Broadway this season, tosses too many characters into her jambalaya, and fails to season the stew with enough sustaining dramatic interest. The intersecting character lines are heightened by an excess of overlapping dialogue, sapping the play’s focus. At one point, Francis says, “the center will not motherfucking hold,” which is a pretty good description of the play. When the muscular Bait Boy doffs his shirt to prowl about in a wife beater, it’s hard not to think immediately of another play with a virile, undershirted man set in this steamy delta city, and to understand how much AIRLINE HIGHWAY suffers by comparison. 
Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
261 W. 47th Street, NYC
Through June 14