Review: ‘The Layover’; sex, lies and strangers on the plane

Asys Danilova

  • OnStage New York Critic

Two strangers meet on a plane waiting to take off from Chicago’s O’Hare on a snowy Thanksgiving night. The romantic flame between a college professor, Shellie (Annie Parisse), and an engineer, Dex (Adam Rothenberg), sparks immediately and nobody seems to be overly disappointed when the flight gets canceled. The layover becomes a romantic affair with a backdrop of snow falling over the tarmac. 

The prelude leading to the hotel room resembles one of a thousand romantic comedies set on the cusp of Thanksgiving/Christmas/Saint Valentine’s Day. ‘The Layover’ covers all three holidays while adding a couple of dark twists to the story of two lonely souls trying to connect. The romantic comedy quickly turns to psychological drama with elements of erotic thriller thrown into it.  

Playing with different genres seems like an interesting idea but it didn’t quite come together in this play. More and more characters appear (8 characters played by 6 actors total) with the solemn purpose to push the plot forward. Whether it’s the uneven writing or the underwhelming stage direction of Trip Cullman, but none of what’s happening seems realistic or relatable. At least the chemistry between Annie Parisse and Adam Rothenberg is good, particularly in two mirror scenes in the hotel room. But before you get to the first of them, you need to sit through three lengthy “talking heads” scenes.              

The “getting to know each other” part is long and not particularly grabbing. The dialogues are supposed to be funny and sharp (as promised by reviewers praising Leslye Headland’s writing talent). The playwright spreads the peacock tail of her wit and, through characters flirting with each other, is desperately trying to win over the audience. Dex stumbles and shies away from the flirty and confident Shellie while she seems to know exactly what she wants and is aggressively approaching it. Individual loud bursts of laughter are heard in the audience, so at least somebody is into it. 

What began as a romantic adventure quickly becomes the story of dysfunctional relationships and attempts at escaping into a “romantic dream”. I got to give it to Headland, she succeed in creating characters whose lives are a constant seesaw between imaginary worlds and reality. Everybody is trying to hide from the truth in the fairytale-like narrative they create for themselves; whether it’s a “42 year old micromanaging her own wedding” while the relationship with her fiancé is cracking apart, or another 42 year old woman who once pretended that she is somebody else entirely.
The layered scenic design by Mark Wendland looks stunning and accommodates the action, which sometimes runs in two places at once. Glass panels slide up and down, creating different configurations depending on where we are. The gradual opening of more and more space is a visual representation of the structure of the play: as we move on we discover the true identities of the duplicitous characters. The lighting design by Japhy Weideman completes the set architecture by throwing colored shapes on the glass walls. The video design by Jeff Sugg features dreamily blurry window views of the airport and series of looped shots from 50s’ black and white movies. 

‘The Layover’ produced by Second Stage Theatre is running through September 18th. Schedule and tickets are available here.