Playwright: Lisa D'Amour. At: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St. Tickets: 312-335-1650; www.steppenwolf.org; $20-$86. Runs through: Feb. 8
The most inconsequential encounters can suddenly assume an aura of high adventure when they occur in certain cities that continue to cast a romantic spell on American imaginations. San Francisco, Las Vegas and New Orleans all share images largely based in visitors' impressions, but though Lisa D'Amour purports to flout the Crescent City's reputation as a sodom-and-gomorrah fantasyland, her invocation of the nostalgie de la boue long-associated therewith inadvertently winds up affirming it.
The setting, ironically, is not the picturesque French Quarter, but a shabby motel along what was once a main traffic artery, now providing SRO quarters to third-tier employees of the Bourbon Street strip. Current tenants include career red-light temptress Tanya, brash cross-dresser Sissy NaNa, recently evicted stripper Krista, Jackson Square poet Francis and, significantly, local legend Miss Ruby, terminally ill and lying on her deathbed upstairs. Manager Wayne and handyman Terry are assisting the residents in assembling a "living funeral" for the surrogate matriarch, pooling their meager resources for the kind of jubilant send-off indigenous to the region. Why, even cradle-snatching stud Bait Boy is expected to attend, after having landed himself a sugar mama in Atlanta and gone bougie. He arrives, wearing a new pink shirt and a new legal monikeraccompanied by his teenage foster daughter Zoe, who sees in her stepdad's former comrades material for a school project.
There's nothing sadder than watching a play brimming with potential shoot itself in the foot. We can accept the notion of a wealthy widow buying herself a stray-puppy consort. We can understand her domesticated hubby's longing for a return to his glory days. If his travel companion were a 20-year-old blue-stocking pursuing her sociology degree, we might even swallow that "school project" story as a representation of the author's youthful wild-side walks. So why, then, does D'Amour ask us to believe that a savvy hustler like Bait Boyahem, "Greg"would jeopardize his sweet deal by turning his protector's virgin property loose amid the sordid subculture he was so eager to escape, and how was Zoe's cougar-mom persuaded to entrust her offspring to a chaperone of such dubious parenting skills?
Steppenwolf's international reputation for ensemble work is displayed at its best by the overlapping dialogue ( a phenomenon only possible in live performance ) and an aural/visual milieu that all but shimmers with sultry gulf-coast languor. What a shame if D'Amour's headed-for-Broadway play opened with its rolling bon temps hobbled by audiences puzzling over the motives of a cheap plot device introduced to lend a pretense of social conflict.