The first few scenes of The
Layover are its best. There’s heat and promise, aggression and suggestion. If the play had ended here, a swift erotic encounter between strangers on a plane,
it would have been a welcome diversion from the workaday world. But Leslye Headland’s play tires quickly, collapsing when it tries to show the world outside the fuselage. Worse, it keeps throwing its noir pretensions at us. They’re the equivalent of so many bird strikes, right to the dramaturgical engine.
We open on Shellie (Annie Parisse) and Dex (Adam Rothenberg) flirting across armrests. She says she’s a professor in American crime fiction; he builds islands for sheikhs. (Ah, we note, both experts in fantasy.) Snowed in and put up in an improbably swanky hotel by their airline, they dance toward the inevitable. Here, director Trip Cullman does a lovely job of building their sexual tension — in The Layover‘s first sequences, Parisse and Rothenberg strike a film’s worth of sparks. But the play wants us on different tenterhooks. Why so many mentions of Patricia Highsmith? What about Shellie’s synopsis of a novel about a woman’s double life? If you aren’t warned by these clanging devices, then the last trump will not rouse you.
Once their night is over, Shellie and Dex go back to normal existence. Mark Wendland’s set slides into split-screen scenes as images from Golden Age thrillers flicker in the background; Jeff Sugg’s video design shows us Bette Davis’s startled eyes and Hitchcockian shadows. But it’s not hardboiled stylization that follows: just poorly written realism. (Shellie has, of course, been lying all along — about her life, her work, and more.)
Once the pair parts, Headland’s ear deserts her; Parisse and Rothenberg, too, turn strangely wooden. The ease of the play’s first section turns flat — you hear the “page” behind the words. Shellie’s father (John Procaccino) delivers a prosy speech; her husband (Quincy Dunn-Baker) plays a stock baddie; Dex’s fiancée (Amelia Workman) is a caricature of the bitchy rich. These supporting actors fight to create humor and vigor — Dunn-Baker alone deserves a Maltese falcon for his late-in-play portrait of a helpful private eye. But Parisse and Rothenberg set the tone, and they’re suddenly all wet. That’s a dangerous thing when your characters turn out to be made of cardboard.
Directed by Trip Cullman
Tony Kiser Theatre
305 West 43rd Street
Through September 18