'The Layover': Theater Review

Joan Marcus
Annie Parisse and Adam Rothenberg in 'The Layover'
Sure enough in breezy takeoff phase but falls apart as it spirals into a downbeat ending.

Annie Parisse and Adam Rothenberg play strangers who connect in a one-night stand that casts a lingering spell in Leslye Headland's dark comedy.

After expanding her footprint beyond the stage into film and TV, Bachelorette playwright Leslye Headland returns to the theater to chart the lasting impact of a one-night stand in The Layover. Playing strangers who meet as seatmates on a delayed domestic flight, Annie Parisse and Adam Rothenberg keep the character interplay sexy and amusing throughout the promising early scenes. But the author's ambitions slip out of her grasp as she attempts to riff on the kind of adulterous intrigue that was the domain of Patricia Highsmith on the page and Alfred Hitchcock on screen. The result is a play that resembles a hijacked flight, taking too many jerky detours before crashing.

Like Headland's Sleeping With Other People, this new work concerns the lasting impression made by intimate connections and whether those sparks can reignite. But whereas that scenario yielded a buoyant conclusion in the 2015 film, here it leads to ugly realizations and a very sorry outcome, in which an impossible obsession withers under the cold light of reality.

The central characters, Shellie (Parisse) and Dex (Rothenberg), are an attractive fortyish pair who get to flirting while their Thanksgiving Chicago-to-New York flight sits on the tarmac, delayed at first by technical difficulties and then canceled due to weather conditions. Identifying herself as a college professor who teaches a course in American crime fiction, she's prickly at first, pulling him up on every inadvertently sexist comment before relaxing enough to enjoy the slick engineer's attentions. While his caginess about his personal situation makes it obvious Dex in not unattached, Shellie agrees to spend the night with him at an airport hotel, undeterred even by the indignity of having to listen in on his nervous phone conversation with his controlling fiancée.

Headland takes no moral position on the role of either party in the philandering. Instead, her interest lies in the way their agreeably uncomplicated evening together continues to echo in their hearts and minds in the months that follow, when they return to the numbing dissatisfaction of real life.

During their hotel cocktail bar stop en route to the bedroom, Shellie and Dex discuss her favorite Highsmith novels — most tellingly, Strangers on a Train, The Talented Mr. Ripley and the less celebrated Edith's Diary. Headland plants teasing (and mostly false) clues of developments that echo each of those plots, among them a reciprocal pact to carry out motiveless murders, the fabrication of a more fascinating false identity and the corrosive toll of an unfulfilled life. But while Mark Wendland's sharp modular set flickers during scene changes with black-and-white images from hardboiled Hollywood noir tales of crime and passion, The Layover forfeits its kinship to those psychological thrillers by showing scant understanding of their tone or plot mechanisms.

Again referencing Highsmith, Shellie observes that the complicit strangers in the author's devious plots usually come under broad definitions of "the boring guy" and "the crazy guy." Headland also plays with our expectations regarding which is which in terms of Shellie and Dex, though not in any way that rings consistently true.

Inconsistency is one of the main issues with these characters, and it's difficult to discuss the play's crippling flaws without revealing the unveiling that undermines everything — so the spoiler-averse would be wise to stop reading.

Dex is pretty much exactly what he presents, a smooth operator who has allowed himself, for the wrong reasons, to get locked into an engagement to Andrea (Amelia Workman), a micro-managing monster who's every bit as shallow and self-absorbed as he is. She also has a tween daughter, Lily, who's a manipulative chip off the old block, played with delicious callousness by the young Arica Himmel. Shellie, however, is the exact opposite of the fiercely independent woman Dex met. She's an uneducated blue-collar Midwesterner, married to a deadbeat husband (Quincy Dunn-Baker) and caring for her infirm father (John Procaccino).

Perhaps because the dialogue and sexual frisson of the early scenes are so sparkling, but also because sophisticated intelligence comes so naturally to the excellent Parisse, Shellie's bleak reality isn't believable for a second; it also calls into question the poise and authority with which she reinvented herself in the play's sexually charged brief encounter. The needling obsession of the inherently weak Dex is no more credible, a combination that effectively removes any reason to care what happens to the principal characters after their hookup.

Director Trip Cullman's polished production meets the challenge of orchestrating simultaneous action as Shellie and Dex, stuck in their respective unhappy situations, continue to connect across the physical divide. But the play's logic has begun to crumble well before its misjudged final scene, which turns not into Strangers on a Train but into a different, unmentioned Hitchcock title, Vertigo, the fatal story of a man in love with an illusion. Nothing that comes before suggests that was the story Headland set out to tell, making The Layover seem both ill-conceived and thematically incoherent.

Venue: Second Stage Theatre, New York
Cast: Quincy Dunn-Baker, Arica Himmel, Annie Parisse, John Procaccino, Adam Rothenberg, Amelia Workman
Director: Trip Cullman
Playwright: Leslye Headland
Set designer: Mark Wendland
Costume designer: Clint Ramos
Lighting designer: Japhy Weideman
Sound designer: Fitz Patton
Video designer: Jeff Sugg
Fight director: Thomas Schall
Presented by Second Stage Theatre