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The Layover

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - August 25, 2016

Annie Parisse and Adam Rothenberg
Photo by Joan Marcus

When it comes to exploring the darkest regions of the human soul in search of the reasons we behave in the devastating ways we do, few playwrights are more experienced or gifted than Leslye Headland. As New York audiences have seen in Bachelorette in 2010 and Assistance in 2012, she's able to unlock and unpack psychologies that are so twisted, they're uncomfortably recognizable in our own mirrors. She continues this streak with what may be her blackest and probing work yet, The Layover, which just opened at Second Stage.

Not that the situation seems unusual or untoward at first. It's Thanksgiving, and in a plane on the runway at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago, a man and a woman seated next to each other strike up a conversation designed to pass the time until a delay is lifted and the pilot is finally able to take off. He is Dexter Reidman (Adam Rothenberg), or Dex for short, who's flying back to New York to spend the holiday with his fiancée. She says she's Shellie Sayers (Annie Parisse), a teacher of American crime fiction at Hunter College who's going to be alone.

Their banter is, as you may expect, playful, even a little edgy; terrorism is mentioned as one reason flying these days is such a pain, and Shellie suggests that perhaps Dex is not as aware as he could be that scaring people is its own form of emotional terrorism, and maybe he'd better watch his mouth. Then a critique of her choice of literature (The Cold Six Thousand, by James Ellroy) leads her to intimate sexism he swears he didn't intend, and... Who are we kidding? Once the flight is canceled, they more or less head straight into bed at room 2046 of the airport Marriott.

For the two of them, however, foreplay and afterglow have considerably different meanings, and it appears as though a one-night-stand might be the extent of their time together. She ducks out early—abandons him, as he later describes it—and their lives crash in opposite directions, he with his frustrating wife-to-be Andrea (Amelia Workman) and her hardening daughter Lily (Arica Himmel) and she with... well... two men who put the lie to most of what she's said: her apparent husband Kevin (Quincy Dunn-Baker) and her deteriorating father, Fred (John Procaccino).

So who are these two quasi-lovers actually? That's the sparkling little matter Headland wants to address, and she spends most of The Layover piling doubt on top of uncertainty and forcing you to constantly reassess everything you know about them. Although Shellie (assuming that's her real name) is not an easy woman to pin down at any given point, Dex transforms even more thoroughly as the gain and loss of his night in Chicago reshapes everything he is and does in ways both expansive and imperceptible.

Headland lets neither them nor us off the hook as she plumbs this scenario for all its confused morality and emotions, and investigates the cascading repercussions even the tiniest lie—or biggest truth—can have on those who aren't ready for them. Director Trip Cullman has rendered this with terrifying clarity, emphasizing both the passionate heat and the chilling dangers that result from the assignation and its aftermath, and even the ever-shifting set (Mark Wendland), probing lights (Japhy Weideman), and projected video (Jeff Sugg) seem to be judging Dex and Shellie with the full force of God.

Annie Parisse and Adam Rothenberg with
Amelia Workman and John Procaccino
Photo by Joan Marcus

Rothenberg and Parisse are perfect in their roles. He brings the faintest neurotic streak to the outwardly self-assured Dex that provides a beguiling, jagged contrast in the early scenes to the wreck of a man he becomes later. And she, both thrilling and flighty, outlines Shellie as a woman who will not—cannot—be pinned down, but nonetheless possesses a vital strength that's as likely to be her undoing as her salvation. Their chemistry is gripping, but it never ignores or downplays the signature characteristics of either—especially when they're a pair, you can see the firmly defined individuals within the union.

It's when the action rotates away from Dex and Shellie for the middle 45 minutes or so (the whole evening runs about 100) that things get shakier. The scenes around them that bring in the other family members are more conventional, even rote, in their construction and execution, which suppresses the electrifying verve of the rest of the play. One suspects that Headland was attempting to use this to establish a baseline of behavior, to particularize the way the couple's fling degrades everything around and within them. But the arguments about such pedestrian issues as money, health, legality, and private investigation that flood the dialogue in these sections do their job all too well, and stifle the invention on which Dex, Shellie, and Headland thrive.

Luckily, The Layover does recover afterward—though its ending, if bracing, is pretty predictable—and leaves us with the wrenching anguish of wondering what happened to Dex and Shellie ever could—or ever should—happen to us. Maybe following your heart anywhere it leads you isn't always a good thing? But do you have a prayer of really living if you don't? Everything about this provocative work reminds you that, if the answers exist, they're almost impossible to divine. But even if they, to say nothing of our own truest selves, never come to light, and if this play occasionally wants to be too droningly talky for its own good, it's difficult to imagine much better questions than the ones Headland so arrestingly asks.

The Layover
Through September 18
Second Stage's Tony Kiser Theatre, 305 West 43rd Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: 2econdStageTheatre

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