by Samuel L. Leiter
Leslye Headland’s The Layover, now being slickly produced at Second Stage under Trip Cullman’s smooth direction, begins on Thanksgiving weekend as a plane waits to take off for New York from Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. Sitting together in business class are Dex (Adam Rothenberg), an attractive man in a smartly tailored suit, and Shellie (Annie Parisse), a good-looking woman in glasses and casual gear; both are appealingly witty, articulate, and fortyish. Naturally, a flirtation begins. She says she teaches American crime fiction at a New York college; he says he’s an engineer who builds things like dams and harbors. He admits to being engaged but she declares she’s single. Little by little they reveal more and more about themselves.
When the flight is canceled they’re forced to stay overnight at a hotel, where the inevitable occurs. So far so good. Dex and Shellie look well matched and we seem to be headed for an interesting romantic comedy layered with the dark shadows cast by their mutual interest in noir fiction and film (Strangers on a Train turns them on). The dialogue is juicy and sassy zingers pop up every now and then.
Headland’s next step is to expose the truth and lies behind what we’ve heard; she places Dex and Shellie’s private lives, with their significant others, on stage, Dex’s at stage right, Shellie’s at left. To say more would require spoilers, which I’ll avoid by merely noting that what we learn is enough to reveal why Dex and Shellie might have succumbed to temptation and why, even after their brief encounter, they can’t get each other out of their minds.
Much as in an Alan Ayckbourn play we watch each set of characters simultaneously, with the focus shifting back and forth across Mark Wendland’s wide open set (sometimes confusingly). Now and then Dex and Shellie seem to stare longingly at one other across the many miles between them. Numerous projection screens allow video designer Jeff Suggs to enhance the atmosphere with images of the outside world or of classic moments from film noir.
Once the setup is clear, the play is unable to maintain its footing; neither leading character’s life is interesting or unique enough to keep the dramatic cauldron boiling. (The theme of lies vs. truth is far more compellingly evoked in another current Off-Broadway play, Caught, at La Mama.) The several moments of steaming sensuality between the lovers simply aren’t enough to compensate for The Layover’s multiple implausibilities.
For starters, there’s the difficulty of reconciling the smart, well-informed, even professorial dialogue given to Shellie in the early scenes with what we eventually discover about her. Among other things there’s the way Dex becomes a mysterious benefactor in Shellie’s life; the unexpected, vaguely motivated shift in Dex’s behavior in the final scene; and, most egregious, the inorganic, contrived shocker (despite the noirish foreshadowing) that concludes the action.
There are things to admire in this approximately 90-minute, intermissionless work, especially the performances of Rothenberg and Parisse, who make sizzling love partners. The supporting company—John Procaccino as a grumpy, old invalid; Amelia Workman as an egotistical divorcée, in addition to another role; Quincy Dunn-Baker doubling as a lout and a private eye; and Arica Himmel as a spoiled brat—is satisfactory in shallow roles. Clint Ramos’s costumes, especially the white sheath for Andrea and the sexy, purple, femme fatale number worn by Shellie at the end, are fine, and Japhy Weideman’s moody lighting makes a major contribution.
A word of advice if you visit The Layover: fasten your seatbelts; it’s going to be a bumpy night.
Second Stage: Tony Kiser Theatre
305 W. 43rd St., NYC
Through September 18
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).