by Michael Bracken
Thank God for chemistry. As embodied by Annie Parisse and Adam Rothenberg in The Layover, at Second Stage Theater, the Tony Kiser Theatre, it keeps Leslye Headland’s puzzling play at a more than comfortable cruising altitude while Shellie (Parisse) and Dex (Rothenberg) are grounded at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport.
The combustion they fuel emits its fair share of sparks as it powers them from airplane to terminal to airport hotel room. They charm the audience as much as they charm each other. We feel they belong together, and we’re happy when that’s where they end up, even if it’s only for the night.
Then chemistry gives way to physics, and what goes up must come down. But does it have to come down with such a crashing thud?
Back in their native habitats, surrounded by toxic sycophants, Shellie and Dex inhabit different worlds. For him it’s his fiancée’s apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan; for her a modest house in Kankakee, Illinois. In her kitchen sits Fred (John Procaccino), her crotchety, disabled father, who has seizures with some frequency, and her lowlife husband, Kevin (Quincy Dunn-Baker), who steals and sells his father-in-law’s medication.
Dex is greeted by his fiancée, Andrea (Amelia Workman), an attractive, self-centered harpy in killer heels and an off-white sheath, and Lily (Arica Himmel), her bratty pre-pubescent daughter. With a mother like Andrea, you’d be bratty too, and with loved ones like these to come home to, you’d head for the airport every chance you got.
For a good portion of the play, Headland’s script calls for the two homes to be onstage simultaneously. With minimal furniture, scenic designer Mark Wendland establishes the two households. They overlap at times, which is fine. It’s supposed to say something, I think, about how Shellie and Dex’s lives are intertwined from their one night together.
But sometimes, as when someone heads to the bathroom, an actor must traverse the entire stage and cross in front of the other family. It’s distracting and unnecessarily calls attention to something that’s not important. Director Trip Cullman sometimes plays into The Layover’s problems instead of smoothing them out.
The hotel room, where Shellie and Dex find themselves more than once, is another story altogether. Sharing the stage with no other location, it takes up the entire playing area. There’s a square coffee table sitting a couple of miles from the bed, an island in a sea of Hilton.
Costume designer Clint Ramos is more to the point, especially with Shellie. Late in the play, she appears in a soft purple dress with a wraparound look that Parisse wears stunningly. A little beyond Shellie’s blue-collar budget perhaps, but she could have gotten it at a thrift shop or a major clearance sale.
Where Ramos really comes through is at the play’s beginning. Shelley, who purchased her ticket pretty much on a whim, is wearing blue jeans and a striped, red and navy, long-sleeved top. But what defines her outfit is her footwear, ballet slippers in a leopard print. They clash with the stripes and send a clear message: this is a woman without vanity or affectation.
Would that the same could be said of Headland’s tortuous drama. For the first three scenes, writer, director, and actors shine. It’s all simple and direct. But throw a couple of more characters into the mix and watch out. Any semblance of a connection to the truth is hard to find.
Through September 10th. Second Stage at the Tony Kiser Theatre, 305 W 43rd St. 90 minutes, no intermission. www.2st.com
Photos: Joan Marcus