‘The Layover’ Theater Review: Patricia Highsmith’s ‘Strangers on a Train’ Reimagined

Leslye Headland’s new play careens between terrific meet-cute humor and the darkest romantic obsessions

Photo: Joan Marcus

In “A Streetcar Named Desire,” Blanche du Bois complains about the potency of cheap perfume. In her provocative new play, Leslye Headland complains about the potency of cheap romantic fantasies.

The opening scenes of “The Layover,” which opened Thursday at Off Broadway’s Second Stage Theater, recall Mike Nichols and Elaine May at their most inspired. Our expectations keep being subverted in hilarious ways that say much about men and women and how they mate. And why they lie to each other.

“The Layover” ends in scenes that hark back to Bertolt Brecht’s observation that it’s a perverse God who made the organs of lovemaking and excrement the same. That’s quite a journey to take in only 100 minutes, and no theatergoer should miss it.

Shellie (Annie Parisse) and Dex (Adam Rothenberg) meet during an airport layover in Chicago, where they begin spinning romantic fantasies that prove far more intoxicating than either cheap perfume or the messiness of their real lives back home.

Headland cleverly mixes into their banter a discussion of Patricia Highsmith, particularly her masterpiece “Strangers on a Train” and its crisscross of motiveless murders. Highsmith’s demented killer is the “crazy” character, says Shellie, and the duped non-accomplice is the “boring” character.

“The Layover” doesn’t replicate the “Strangers” plot in the scenes to come, but both characters have people in their lives they probably thought about killing. They are Dex’s vapid fiancée (Amelia Workman) and her equally grasping daughter (Arica Himmel), and Shellie’s invalid father (John Procaccino) and her deadbeat husband (Quincy Dunn-Baker). During their respective fights at home, Shellie and Dex keep fantasizing about their one-night affair at the Marriott Chicago O’Hare Airport Hotel, and in the process find themselves alternating between being crazy and boring.

For those who know the Hitchcock movie better than the Highsmith novel, Robert Walker is the crazy one, Farley Granger the boring one. Upstage on a screen, images of Walker and Granger sometimes flicker, along with scenes from other black-and-white crime classics — “Touch of Evil,” “The Maltese Falcon,” “The Wrong Man,” “The Strange Loves of Martha Ivers.” (Only Burt Lancaster on a phone in “Seven Days in May” doesn’t quite belong there.)

Headland doesn’t have her characters talk much about the movies, but that visual overlay by director Trip Cullman ups the quotient of obsessive romantic fantasy. It’s also brilliantly realized by set designer Mark Wendland and video designer Jeff Sugg, and Fitz Patton’s sound design is the next best thing to having a Bernard Herrmann score.

The play and its staging here are much more successful with Shellie’s story. The dynamic of the resentful husband caring for someone else’s wheelchair-bound father gives firm support to Parisse’s multi-layered performance.

Less interesting are the two shrews Dex encounters at home, although the 11-year-old Himmel delivers the most unsentimental child performance ever. Rothenberg convincingly conveys the Wall Street-type Shellie incorrectly guesses Dex to be at first glance, and he handles Headland’s mercurial wordplay with deftness. But visually, he needs to cut his performance in half. Not needed are all those tics and grimaces.

Dunn-Baker, playing the husband as well as a very creepy detective, is magnificent. His gumshoe’s late-in-the-play encounter with Dex recalls the Nichols-and-May magic of the play’s opening, and it sets us up beautifully for Headland’s final shocker.