First Nighter: Lisa D'Amour's 'Airline Highway' Traffic Jam

04/24/2015 12:05 am ET | Updated Jun 24, 2015

Everybody knows about gang comedies, most often as television series. Something less talked about, if ever talked about, are gang tragedies -- or let's say, gang dramas. They exist as well, often as plays.

Tennessee Williams's Vieux Carré, a fictionalized version of the boarding house in which he stayed during his early New Orleans days, is a strong example. Lanford Wilson put himself on the map with Hot L Baltimore and then made it a specialty with, to name two, The Mound Builders and Sympathetic Magic.

There are others too numerous to mention, with the latest addition to the gang-drama annals being Lisa D'Amour's Airline Highway, at Manhattan Theatre Club's Samuel J. Friedman. Coincidentally(?), this one also takes place in New Orleans but in a part of town Williams may have known about but doesn't seem ever to have inhabited.

It's the Hummingbird Motel on Airline Highway during the first week of May, this year -- 2015. Scott Pask (whose sets for Something Rotten and The Visit are up for review this week -- busy guy!) has created a evocative environment. He displays part of an office, a dilapidating two-level array of front doors and window, a stairway with a wrought-iron railing, an automobile in advanced disrepair and a sizable patch of parking lot. It's definitely something to see, if not book reservations for -- and the word "Motel" on the tall roadside sign includes every one of its five letters.

Living permanently -- or impermanently, as the case may be -- at the rundown Hummingbird are any number of on-their-uppers denizens, but only some of them are featured as they go about their humdrum lives on the day and night the action unfolds. As it happens, they're also focusing attention on a funeral celebration for Miss Ruby (Judith Roberts). She hasn't died. Instead, she's requested the ceremony to precede her demise so she can hear what's said about her.

Perhaps the most prominent resident is Tanya (Julie White), who's good to everyone on the premises but is battling a pill addiction. In the meantime, Wayne (Scott Jaeck) runs the place, with Terry (Tim Edward Rhoze) as handyman. Krista (Caroline Neff) hangs around, relying on Tanya's hospitality, because she's been thrown out for not paying rent.

Her former boyfriend, known as Bait Boy but wanting to be called Greg or Gregory (Joe Tippett), also habitually swings by. For this visit, he brings along Zoé (Carolyn Braver), a 16-year-old writing a paper on a sub-culture, which she enthusiastically decides is the Hummingbird Motel, this to her eventual chagrin. Francis (Ken Marks), a bicycle-riding poet gets D'Amour's attention, and there's Sissy Na Na (K. Todd Freeman), a flamboyant tranny--or is that redundant in dramaturgical realms?.

Anyone reading this far has already assumed that from the description of the locale and the characters, D'Amour is presenting one of those slice-of-life pieces exposing the quietly, or not so quietly, desperate lives of lost or abandoned or both souls. The assumption is accurate. The particulars of these lives may vary from the work's predecessors, but the overall impression is the familiar same.

Actually, D'Amour doesn't always supply enough information on the ones spotted in and out of the figurative spotlight. While Tanya either fights to resist the temptation to pop a pill (what do you think happens?), questions remain about how she came to be where she is. A few biographical facts emerge--a couple of marriages--but not enough. What about Bait Boy? Boasting some of the macho attributes Williams and William Inge liked in their men, he's buff but incompletely fleshed out. Only in the case of Sissy Na Na is there too much. As in so many other plays where campy African-American characters appear, Sissy is present to read everyone else's beads--accurately.

Where D'Amour succeeds is with some of the day's events and especially, the night's. The party--for which Pask's set is decorated with myriad crepe paper medallions and the like--is a blast in more than one way. (Credit Fitz Patton for the sound design and original music piped in at varying decibel degrees.) For this sequence, the entire 16-member cast cavorts in outfits as gaudy as costumer David Zinn can make them.

D'Amour does rise to a notable height when at last Miss Ruby is carried from her room on a metal bed and carried down the staircase. Though announcing she's in her last 10 hours--there's no reason to doubt her--she proves to be even more perceptive than Sissy Na Na. Her news, addressed to one after another of those paying court, isn't what anyone of them wants to hear. Clearly, she's delivering D'Amour's dark view.

Strong lines are another of D'Amour's accomplishments. Among my favorites is one delivered by adolescent Zoé, who defends her perceived youthful naiveté by saying, "Sixteen--that's 45 in Google years." Everyone in the audience knows exactly what she means.

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-crew The 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.

At the beginning, one of the ensemble players enters on the Hummingbird's upper level, walks downstairs to a vending machine, inserts money, makes her selection only to have nothing immediately drop. This induces her to bang repeatedly on the hulking appliance. This sort of vending-machine recalcitrance has happened to everyone, and its appearance here gets a laugh of recognition.

But it's also a metaphor, and perhaps the wrong kind: It signals that little is about to go right in the play. D'Amour puts it there for a purpose, of course. Nonetheless, it may be that in the long run it signals too obliviously the pessimistic outlook on life about to unfold at length.