Leslye Headland’s attempt to write a neo-noir erotic thriller (think “Body Heat”) comes up lame in “The Layover.” Despite the fine sexual chemistry generated by Annie Parisse and Adam Rothenberg as strangers who connect when their plane is grounded in Chicago by a snowstorm, the play can’t overcome the scribe’s clumsy reworking of the vintage formula. Lacking those generic plot thrills, this half-baked erotic teaser is no more than mildly entertaining.
The slick design work is par for a Second Stage Theater main-stage production. Cast in luminous night shades by Japhy Weideman’s lighting, Mark Wendland’s set uses translucent screens to create snowbound scene settings of airport lounges, airport food courts, airport hotels, and cozy business-class airline seats — all conducive to a bit of casual sex between strangers.
Lest we miss the point, the back wall of the set is cut into small rectangular screens resembling film strips that video designer Jeff Sugg has filled with heavy-breathing love scenes between tarnished heroes and femmes fatales from memorable films noir of the ’40s and ’50s. Oh, look, there’s Bogart and Mary Astor in “The Maltese Falcon,” and here comes a string of dangerous dames like Ruth Roman and Lisbeth Scott and Veronica Lake bent on seducing lovesick saps like Glenn Ford and Alan Ladd.
Shellie (the divine Parisse) and Dex (Rothenberg, Mister Charm with a disarming grin) aren’t exactly Bogie and Baby, but they suit one another quite nicely when they find themselves grounded at O’Hare on Thanksgiving. She teaches American Crime Fiction at Hunter College and has the noir sensibility and vocabulary to carry off her odd profession. He’s an engineer who works in boring San Diego, but knows from noir literary touchstones like “L.A. Confidential” and “The Black Dahlia.”
As anyone knows who has seen the writer’s play and film “Bachelorette” in any of its various iterations, Headland has a whiplash tongue that makes her a whiz at acerbic cosmopolitan chit-chat. The smart dialogue she’s written for these would-be lovers is interesting and quite sexy. “I absolutely lust for loneliness,” Shellie tells Dex when he informs her he’s getting married because he’s afraid of spending the rest of his life alone. “I want to be the one who understands you — right now,” he tells her when she admits to feeling misunderstood. No wonder these two fall into one another’s arms when American Airlines offers them a free overnight at the Marriott.
Director Trip Cullman knows exactly what to do with his well-matched principals when he gets them into their hotel room. Parisse, who can play just about anything (and has, in shows from Off Broadway’s “Becky Shaw” to TV’s “Law & Order”) takes Shellie from clever and funny (if emotionally needy) and transforms her into incredibly sexy. No wonder Dex is dazzled.
Lovers will lie, as lovers are wont to do, and Shellie and Dex run true to form. But when they are torn from their fantasy and returned to their normal lives, the contrasts are really shocking. Although Dex is shamefully cruel to his awful fiancée (Amelia Workman, taking it on the chin), he’s pretty much the same guy we met on that night flight.
Shellie, however, turns out to be an entirely different person — in intellectual and verbal facility, as much as physical appearance and social class. Back in Chicago, there had been a few hints that she was not who she seemed. (Whoever heard of a college teacher unfamiliar with the term “syllabus” or the concept of “required reading”?) But observing her in her miserable blue-collar life, coping with her dear but soon-to-be-departed dad (John Procaccino, simply aces) and no-good deadbeat husband (Quincy Dunn Baker, flawless as a born felon), she seems a different person entirely, and her transformation isn’t the least bit believable.
That’s exactly what Dex thinks, when he tracks her down and talks her into another assignation in Chicago. Headland’s rather obvious point seems to be that fantasy sex with strangers dulls our wits, and real-life sex is a bummer. But Dex actually becomes childishly angry when Shellie fails to live up to his fantasies of her.
The upshot of this ill-conceived reunion is, of course, violent, but not in a way that film noir writers and directors would recognize. Headland ends her play with a whimper — and just at the point when the great noir masters of the past would have reached for their weapons and blasted everyone to kingdom come.