It has been a full 20 months since Theatre Lab at FAU mounted its first and only preview of “To Fall In Love,” after which all theaters closed for the extended corona summer and beyond. The pandemic’s effects have been tragic and nearly existential for all of the performing arts, but in retrospect, this one feels like an especially tough play to jettison at the very point of its readiness.
Having finally experienced Theatre Lab’s production, I can report that it’s the kind the show that takes so much out of its audience that I cannot imagine how much it affects its two intrepid, curious, perceptive actors. It’s a play, and certainly a production, rich in depth and nuance, in emotional peaks and valleys, in tears and occasional laughter, in exposed viscera both psychological and literal. To create such a grueling masterpiece that nobody saw—the dramaturgical tree falling in the desolate forest—was simply unacceptable, even if it took a year and a half to finally come to fruition.
And so the set, a handsome, spare and deliberately anonymous prefabricated apartment enlivened by designer Michael McClain’s studious attention to detail, remains in place from its March 2020 construction—except for the time-sensitive addition of an N95 face mask dangling from the refrigerator, a welcome, place-setting token of this interminable zeitgeist.
This is where Wyatt Grimes (Matt Stabile) has lived, for the past year or so, after an excruciating separation from his wife Merryn Thomas (Niki Fridh). Looking down the barrel of divorce papers, Wyatt has proposed a last-ditch effort to save their union: They will sit together for an hour and ask each other the 36 questions in Mandy Len Catron’s 2015 New York Times essay, “To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This.” The piece, written by Catron after the end of a long-term relationship, was conceived with strangers in mind, as a way to test their future compatibility. But Wyatt sees it as a potential reboot—a relationship-saving salve for a coupling that has been on life support for too long.
Awkwardness and discomfort hang thickly in the air; she’s a jumble of nerves, he’s retreating into what he self-diagnoses as “practiced repression.” But they go through the questions, light conversation starters at first—“If you could invite anyone over for a dinner party, who would it be?”—that finally segue into deep and painful explorations of past traumas. This conceit is more than an ingenious way for playwright Jennifer Lane to naturally integrate exposition and backstory; it also presents a persuasive vision of couples therapy through pop-psychological prompts.
Stabile and Fridh, married in real life, offer a joint master class in acting that is reactive, is raw, is authentic to the old adage that “hurt people hurt people.” Radical honesty carries the show through its unpredictable ebbs and flows. When Wyatt presents a confession to Merryn that is both painful to hear and nakedly revealing of his love for her, Fridh allows competing, complex emotions to dance across her face, the information briefly short-circuiting any knee-jerk response.
Each actor delivers the occasional arrestingly romantic line amid the smoldering verbal wreckage of a razed relationship: “I’ve written hundreds of poems about you,” reveals Wyatt; “If I was lucky, [our son] would be just like you,” Merryn offers, and your heart rises into your throat. Lou Tyrrell savors these moments just so in his expert direction, lingering subtly, his beats pregnant with loaded memories and seedlings of reconciliation.
This is a show whose satisfactions—most of them existing as potentialities in the eye of each beholder in the audience—do not come easy. Each breakthrough is hard-earned, and usually followed by a painful regression to the mean. But Tyrrell, Fridh and Stabile, working from Lane’s illuminating words, have delivered a show in which the two people onstage could be your friends, your neighbors, your family. They could be you. You’re so invested in their story that you want so badly for these three-dimensional humans to be happy—with or without each other in their lives.
“To Fall In Love” runs through Dec. 12 at Theatre Lab at FAU, 777 Glades Road, Boca Raton. All patrons, regardless of vaccination status, are expected to wear masks while indoors in any FAU facilities. Tickets are $32-$40 for the general public and $10 for FAU students. Call 561/297-6124 or visit fauevents.com.
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