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These Bad Kids Are (Slightly) Grown Up

Date: Aug 19, 2016

Leslye Headland and Trip Cullman reunite for their third play


The last time playwright Leslye Headland and director Trip Cullman collaborated, the show climaxed with a cathartic tap dance. The pair has reunited with The Layover, running through September 18 at Second Stage, and this time things end very, very differently.

"When we did our first reading of this, [Cullman] was like, 'It's about grownups!'" Headland recalls.

That was very much on purpose. Headland and Cullman previously teamed up for Assistance and Bachelorette, dagger-sharp comedies about younger adults making egregious mistakes, but this time, she says, "it was very important for me to write a play that was not about twentysomethings, mostly because I'm not a twentysomething anymore."

In fact, The Layover is about as far from the gleeful viciousness of Bachelorette as one can get. The plot is set in motion when characters Shellie and Dex find themselves seated together on a plane, accompanied by his phone and her James Ellroy novel. Stranded by a blizzard, the two banter and parry in ways that might seem to echo Headland's earlier material, but the story quickly shifts into new territory. (It's difficult to say more without giving too much away.)

"We were total bad kids when we did Assistance and Bachelorette," says Cullman. "Now we're older – hopefully wiser – and it's immensely gratifying."

He adds that the duo's shared shorthand after working together and becoming friends has helped with the difficulties of this particular play, and Headland points to their disparate ways of working as the key to their success. "He's very patient," she says. "It's like the lamest compliment you can give someone, but he's just patient. He understands that sometimes I need to sit there and sort of talk, that I'm not someone who's gonna go to my room and do a rewrite. I have to be there and be present and get my dirty little fingers in everything before I can get a hold of what needs to happen."

Headland also points to Cullman's ability to see the big picture of stage productions, a blessing because, as she admits, "I'm always trying to put stuff on stage that seems impossible. And I don't mean impossible in a skeptical kind of way. More like when I wrote the ending of this play I was like, 'This is going to be really hard.' I just think this was more of a challenge for both of us. You get to page 30 of the play, and the budget just doubled!"

Meanwhile, there are the questionable choices being made by the characters, all of which have to seem organic and unavoidable. Cullman argues that while most people gauge an audience's reaction by their ability to empathize with the characters, "I sort of liken the experience of watching a Leslye Headland play to when you're on the freeway and there's an accident in the other lane and everyone slows down to watch it. You can't take your eyes away from something that's horrific because it's sort of mesmerizing. I think this play has her trademarks of dark, dark humor, but also this immense amount of dread that accrues throughout. That's new and special to her work."

If so, this blackly comedic playwright may have her director to thank. "He pushes me to be a better writer and a better artist and honestly a better person as well," Headland says. Then, like one of her own heroines, she drily adds, "I take everything personally, so it's amazing to work side by side with someone much more even-tempered and patient than I am."


TDF Members: At press time, discount tickets were available for The Layover. Go here to browse our latest offers.

Follow Mark Peikert at @MarkPeikert.

Top photo: A scene from The Layover's official trailer