How I Fell in Love
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 29, 2011
How I Fell in Love is that rarity among contemporary romantic comedies—one that focuses on people who are grown up, smart, genuinely caring and thoughtful and likable. No Cheers-style banter here, no Friends-style immaturity, certainly no Seinfeld-ian cynicism or Will & Grace meanness: Nessa and Todd are characters to love and root for, as they stumble through their own love lives and a relationship together, eyes always open and hearts open, too. And, though I've referenced a whole slew of TV comedies just now, and though playwright Joel Fields is best known for writing TV shows like Ugly Betty, be assured that How I Fell in Love is no sitcom. There are a couple of lapses into formula here and there, but this is a script that goes deeper and mines richer territory than a 23-minute teleplay. And even if you think you know just how it's going to resolve itself, you will, I think, be pleasantly surprised by some of the loops and turns Fields's story ultimately takes.
So, it's about Nessa and Todd. Nessa's a resident at a hospital, working hard to get a fellowship in her somewhat arcane specialty (microvascular hand surgery), and stuck with a crush on a married doctor named Eric. Todd is a 33-year-old poetry major who has worked for ten years laying carpet; he has a propensity for becoming infatuated with women who don't seem to know he exists.
The first part of How I Fell in Love consists of these two narrating, mostly via direct address to the audience, who they are and how they got to the place in their lives when they each determined that getting some therapy might be of some value to them. And then, about a third of the way into the play they meet at their therapists' office (they have appointments with different doctors at the same time). They get to talking, and one thing leads to another...and over weeks, meeting up for their respective sessions, a lovely friendship forms and evolves. I leave it to you to discover for yourself whether romance follows.
Fields's dialogue is sharp and funny without ever sounding written—he gets into the heads of these two people and builds fully dimensional, convincing characters. Of course he's abetted beautifully by the solid, unobtrusive direction of Jules Ochoa, and by the excellent performances of Polly Lee, who gets Nessa's intelligence and vulnerability just right, and Tommy Schrider, who is enormously likable, charming, and real as Todd. They're supported ably by Mark Doherty, who plays the hopeless egoist Eric, and Roya Shanks, who appears as two of Todd's crushes, and nails both characterizations in spite of having just a tiny amount of stage time to do so.
Ochoa keeps the pace brisk and the mood warm. A simple, very well-crafted unit set by Wilson Chin and David L. Arsenault serves as both protagonists' apartments and all other necessary locations with virtually no shifting of furniture or props required; Travis McHale's lighting is evocative and defines time, place, and feeling effectively; ditto Ian Wehrle's sound (a fair amount of the play's dialog is one-sided phone conversations/messages, and the ambient accompanying noises are well presented here); and Kimberly Matela's costumes feel letter-perfect, down to the crocs worn by Eric at the end of his shift at the hospital.
I had a ball at How I Fell in Love, and even found myself feeling a little bit moved at its end. It's sweet and heartfelt and sophisticated in the ways in which it looks at what's important in affairs of the heart. I hope it has a long life after this short introductory run at Abingdon Theatre Company.