Not long ago, back in the days of air travel when cocktails flowed, bags flew free and the tray table did not abut your gut, Chicago's Sandburg Village apartment complex was teeming with flight attendants, or, as they were known at the time, stewardesses. The Division Street singles bars — outside which one could easily catch a bus to O'Hare — enjoyed this happy proximity, since flight attendants were mostly required to be young, single and, preferably, up for an adventure.
The friendly skies, they have a-changed.
"Mud Blue Sky," playwright Marisa Wegrzyn's modestly scaled but exceedingly funny new play, which opened Sunday night just across LaSalle Street from the former warren of airline employees, is all about a pair of flight attendants up to no good on a layover in an O'Hare-area hotel. But this is no "Boeing Boeing" nor "Coffee, Tea or Me" memoir of zipless bed-hopping (to sanitize Erica Jong) with handsome first officers or Parisian bankers. They don't hang out on Touhy Avenue.
No, these St. Louis-based flight attendants are very much products of the new airline realities. As played by the hilarious Natalie West and Mierka Girten, they are 50-ish veterans hoping to stay healthy and stave off the latest round of layoffs with their early retirement packages that get crummier with every offering. They stay in a lousy motel, the kind of place where the cable could not be more basic, you don't want to touch the remote control with your bare hands and you have to go down to the desk to get your pillows. And they don't find travel even remotely glamorous, not when there's a kid at home alone and an overly solicitous TSA officer at every airport. These are women dealing with the daily grind through the hubs of life; there are themes in this play to which every road warrior, of the nonexecutive platinum sort, will relate.
Which is not to say they don't have a little fun.
Actually, Beth (West) and Sam (Girten) join up with Angie (the equally droll Kirsten Fitzgerald), a former flight attendant who gave up the drinks carts for the good life in La Grange, but who misses the bonhomie nonetheless. And there's a fourth wheel to this party train, a local high-school senior named Jonathan (Matt Farabee) who has a nice sideline dealing small quantities of pot to flight attendants looking to take the edge off a layover at the Comfort or Rodeway hotel, or whatever other suburban hostelry commands their presence for an evening in the parfumerie of the flight path. The dominant feature of Jacqueline Penrod's set is a big, lumbering air conditioner, oozing rusty fluids.
Under the direction of Shade Murray, West plays her role like she's doing Beckettian minimalism in 50 different shades of gray. Believe me, nothing in that book happens to Beth, who is reduced to arguing over a few bucks for a joint that comes out of a kid's backpack. Girten's sardonic Sam at least has a foot in the former world of the profession, but she'd rather be home with the kid in a clean kitchen, a certain insouciance notwithstanding. Add in Fitzgerald's frustrated flier-no-more, and you have a truly hilarious, yet sandpaper dry, trio of empathetic partiers.
Farabee has his work cut out for him going up against these three powerhouse actresses, but he holds up his end very nicely, offering a funny and genuinely moving picture of a lonely kid on prom night, in way over his head.
I've long admired the Chicago-based work of Wegrzyn, who has been doing some writing for network television of late, and "Mud Blue Sky" is perhaps her best play. Not only is the work poignant and closely observed, but it really holds together and paints a consistent world (much of Wegrzyn's other work is far more stylized). This very grounded latest play, which has not yet been seen in New York, is for sure a look at a changed profession. But this first and foremost is a farce, and good new farces are very hard to come by these days.
If you want to get all meta (and why not?), you might say that Wegrzyn is taking the idea of the stewardess on a layover, long a staple of the bedroom farce, and throwing her into a totally different kind of hotel with a totally different, and barely legal, potential lover and fellow adventurer. That theme gives this happily unpredictable 90-minute play a real patina of sadness, a sense of how a once-glamorous profession has been reduced to the quotidian by changing mores and corporate budget-cutters.
That said, there's no funnier show in Chicago at present. In one very funny scene, the flight attendants stare at their potential quarry out of their window: "It's like looking at a little dog in a tuxedo," they say, unsure whether to take him to their rooms and teach him of life, or take him home safely to his mother.
When: Through May 25
Where: A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells St.
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Tickets: $25-$30 at 312-943-8722 and aredorchidtheatre.orgCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun