It’s boom time for ’50s mistress of intrigue Patricia Highsmith: Her roman à clef The Price Of Salt was most recently filmed as the acclaimed Cate Blanchett vehicle Carol, as The Talented Mr Ripley was, earlier, for Matt Damon. Now her Dostoevskian novel Strangers On A Train, concerned with the moral and practical possibilities of a perfect crime, has been retooled (following, of course, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1951 film version) and updated by Leslye Headland. She’s a writer and director (Bachelorette; Sleeping With Other People) whose take on the human comedy has tended more to slapstick comedy than film noir. But in The Layover, Headland and a cast led by Annie Parisse (HBO’s Vinyl) and Adam Rothenberg (the BBC series Ripper Street; House) dive into the dark, deep end of a fable about sex, lies and smartphones.
The train has been replaced by a plane in this tightly scripted one-act, which is having its world premiere at off-Broadway’s Second Stage. The gay subtext of the original has been re-envisioned as the arguably illicit encounter between a woman who presents herself as an unattached college teacher of American crime novels and an unhappily affianced structural engineer. Shellie (Parisse) and Dex (Rothenberg) meet cute in adjacent seats on a New York-bound flight from Chicago that’s delayed long enough for them to flirt, then canceled long enough for them to go the distance in an airport hotel. She’s reading a Highsmith novel and has an abject fear of flying. When he tries a few pick-up lines on her, she responds with verbal machine-gun fire aimed at his patronizing, patriarchal need, in her words, to terrorize him. How could these two not end up in bed?
Trip Cullman’s high-octane production then bifurcates the New York section of the story (the excellent set design is by Mark Wendland). At stage right is the upscale apartment Dex shares with his privileged fiancée Andrea (Amelia Workman) and her annoying daughter Lily (Arica Himmel). At stage left is the dreary rat trap Shellie shares with her epileptic father Fred (John Procaccino) and Kevin (Quincy Dunn-Baker), who steals Fred’s Dilantin and other drugs to sell on the street. A key player in several scenes is a smart phone, used to communicate, to obfuscate and to add some insipid music into the proceedings.
In their brief encounter, Shellie and Dex have gotten under each others’ skin, and how that truth resolves itself in the tangle of lies they built around the relationship is the subject of Headland’s concern, and I can’t go into more detail without betraying too much of the plot. As with most noir tales, things never are quite what they appear to be, but in the case of The Layover you may find yourself, as I did, feeling whiplashed. Not because of the startling plot reveals but by the inconsistencies of character. Headland writes snappy, caustic dialogue — the repartee here is pretty great — yet I found much of what was being said defied credibility. Tracy-and-Hepurning one minute, Ricky-and-Lucying the next, Shellie and Dex seem, ultimately, more like an author’s conceit than actual characters. The abrupt shocker that concludes the play only confirmed my sense that Headland wasn’t in control of the story and, by the end, simply threw in the towel.
Or maybe I just didn’t get it. Still, the show was never boring, as Shellie and Dex danced their dance of sex and … whatever. They may not be lost souls finding redemption in each other, but merely seekers of relief from the tedium of following the rules, and in that, they resonate.