Make you a bet: You’ll think twice before ever cozying up to a stranger on a plane after 90 minutes with “The Layover,” a taut and twisty psychological thriller from Leslye Headland having its world premiere at Second Stage.
Shellie (Annie Parisse) and Dex (Adam Rothenberg) are seated beside one another on a delayed, eventually canceled Thanksgiving-week flight from Chicago to New York. Their dialogue in the first minutes of Headland’s mostly enthralling drama is flirty, fresh and provocative.
Shellie rebuffs his initial advances, but eventually warms to Dex, telling him she’s a professor of American Crime Fiction. Sexy! Dex, an engineer returning from Yemen, where he has been building an island for a sheik—also sexy!—answers honestly when Shellie asks his relationship status: He’s got a fiancee, he “wants to want” to marry.
The chemistry between these two is so genuine, we hope they’ll end up in a hotel room when snow shuts the airport, and so they do. Everything that comes after, though, is more Patricia Highsmith—the writer known for “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” invoked here in both dialogue and narrative—than the rom-com that initially seems on tap.
Credit for pulling that off goes to two strong leads, and of course the writer, known for the play and 2012 film “Bachelorette” (“The Layover” reunites her with director Trip Cullman).
Headland understands a basic fact about relationships: there can be a false electricity when we meet someone, because that person is a blank slate we get to shade in. Actual love, she seems to be reminding us with “The Layover,” comes well after illusions are shattered, and messy truths are exposed.
All this? It's why one-night stands exist, right?
Parisse, the one-time “Law & Order” DA who was so memorable in “Clybourne Park,” is just swell here, charming her way into Dex’s world with a confidence and humor that calls to mind Tina Fey. Later, she offers a stunning display of emotional simplism.
As Dex, Rothenberg (the BBC’s “Ripper Street”) possesses a just-barely detectable element of aggressiveness, but is for the most part increasingly endearing: self-aware, self-supporting and hella goofy ... this fella sets a romantic mood by breaking out his Jambox and cranking up the Hall & Oates. You can go for that, right?
Supporting players include Quincy Dunn-Baker, in multiple parts as a drug-dealing louse and a hilarious private investigator; and John Procaccino, as the father of one protagonist, a man whose past behavior helps partly explain the present behavior of his offspring.
“The Layover” takes a bit long getting to its payoff, a problem that might be resolved by trimming back some detail on the secondary characters. By and large, it’s a sophisticated, sad story about how well we can intimately know someone. One wonders if Headland, whose own wedding is at hand, was exorcising demons.
Without spoiling the outcome, I left 2ST grappling with questions about whether I was a terrible misogynist—I’m convinced that’s just one of the admirably executed elements Headland was going for here.
“The Layover,” through Sept. 22 at Second Stage’s Tony Kiser Theatre, 305 W. 43rd St. Tickets: $79-$125. Visit 2st.com or call 212-246-4422.
Follow Robert Kahn on Twitter@RobertKahn