How I Fell in Love is a play with a simple message: Keep looking for love and never give up. There’s not much to chew over or reflect on after one leaves the theater, but a sterling cast and savvy direction by Jules Ochoa make Joel Fields’ play a treat for theatergoers. Heavily reliant on alternating monologues, the work focuses on two people who only meet about a third of the way through, after the audience learns their disastrous and comic dating histories. First up is Tommy Schrider’s Todd, a warm, somewhat naïve carpet-layer who recounts his misbegotten amours with a wry appreciation of his bad luck.
“I'm working on myself now, trying not to be so negative,” he confides as he describes a meeting with a metal-folk band singer named Crystal (Roya Shanks) and his pursuit of her. The evening devolves as Crystal “flits off to the other side of the room, dancing with some girl in a way that looks very bisexual,” says Todd, whose wingman Ron ends up connecting with Crystal.
Meanwhile, Polly Lee’s neurotic Nessa, a British doctor, works in a hospital alongside a strapping medic named Eric (Mark Doherty) who, she discovers too late, is married. She’s fallen for him hook, line, and sinker; she fantasizes about a life-and-death situation in which she saves Eric but alas, the wife perishes. Then Nessa unexpectedly finds him weeping in the coffee room, and Eric discloses that his marriage is falling apart. Her hopes soar, and before long they are having an affair.
Simultaneously Todd has moved on to a woman named Louise (Shanks again) at a barbecue. They seem to hit it off, although, says Todd, “I keep looking over, wondering … when some beefy boyfriend will appear and thank me for entertaining her while he was at the gym bench-pressing his Porsche.”
The rocky preludes to Todd and Nessa’s emotional miseries eventually lead to their meeting in a therapists’ waiting room, where they seem the ideal solution for each other. They connect as friends, and begin an affair, which hits the skids, bounces back, and is sorely tested. Fields, who has written teleplays for Ugly Betty and Dirt, provides a generous helping of emotional colors as well as comic moments that make his play more satisfying than the average rom-com movie. There may be nothing new in the stresses that Nessa and Todd face, but they feel important at the time.
“Flowers from men are not acts of generosity,” Todd advises Nessa after she’s been impressed by Eric’s sending her blooms following a bad patch between them. “Why don’t women get this?” he asks. “You get flowers and you get all mushy and think, ‘Oooh, he sent flowers...’ But what you really should be thinking is ‘What did he do?’ or ‘What does he want?’ ’Cause those are the only two reasons a man sends flowers.”
Ochoa’s direction keeps the feelings raw and honest, even if, at times, the dialogue veers toward a Lifetime movie (“I'm sorry. It's me. It's not you. You're a marvelous, splendid human being. And this time with you, it's as close as I've ever come to actually touching what's really in here...”).
Schrider and Lee make the soapiest moments work, however, and they also exhibit a persuasive chemistry that drives the play forward and keeps one caring about their characters—a good thing, since appearances by Eric and Louise are infrequent, though welcome. Late in the play, though, Nessa’s weepiness (Lee is adept at turning on the waterworks) and her tendency to sabotage her future with doubts just slightly unbalance one’s sympathies.
Wilson Chin and David Arsenault pull the audience into the Abingdon’s small space by decorating the surrounding walls with images of Los Angeles—Chateau Marmont, a neon bar sign, the skyline—interspersed with color rectangles, Mondrian-style, in hues like pumpkin, celadon and federal blue. A couple pillars have Joseph Cornell-like boxes, from which, for instance, Nessa fetches a book, writing pad and pen. The modern setting is warm, inventive, and efficient.
How I Fell in Love is an apt title for what promises to be a “date play,” and it delivers in spades. But anyone who goes, single or attached, is likely to have an enjoyable time.