Playwright Neil LaBute appears to be coasting with All the Ways to Say I Love You, his new one-person drama about a female high school teacher harboring a terrible secret. Lasting less than an hour, the monologue barely justifies its existence beyond serving as a strong acting vehicle for its notable performer, Judith Light, a recent Emmy nominee for Transparent. Premiering solo at off-Broadway’s MCC Theater, which has been a frequent home to new LaBute works, the slight piece should at least have been paired with a thematically compatible one-act.
The play introduces us to middle-aged English teacher/guidance counselor Mrs. Johnson (Light) in her nondescript office in a school located somewhere in the Midwest. The character takes the audience into her confidence, telling us about her past relationship with Tommy, a “second year senior” student from a broken home whom she describes as “one of those people traditionally known as a handful.”
As is his wont, LaBute here strives to shock the audience, and since the main plot element is revealed early on, this review can’t be considered much of a spoiler. It turns out that, years earlier, Mrs. Johnson engaged in a sexual relationship with the young man who brought her to new heights of erotic bliss. She breathlessly describes the sex in one word — “Wow!” — while contrasting it with her relationship with her mixed-race husband, in which their couplings were merely to “keep up the appearance of lust.” The tensions in their marriage were further exacerbated over the years by their inability to conceive a child.
And that’s about it for the plot, although the playwright provides a twist in the final minutes that supplies a neat answer to an improbable question that Mrs. Johnson says a student once asked her, namely, “What is the weight of a lie?”
Unobtrusively directed by Leigh Silverman, the piece feels overextended despite its brevity; the provocative premise is never fleshed out in sufficiently intriguing fashion. Its thinness is somewhat redeemed by Light’s impressively intense performance. The actress vividly renders her character’s complex feelings of shame, regret and also unabashed joy in the carnal pleasures to which her illicit young lover introduced her. The anguish that Mrs. Johnson feels is palpable, and it’s impossible not to sympathize with her.
And that, of course, is the point of the exercise that is All the Ways to Say I Love You. LaBute makes us feel for someone technically guilty of child abuse and statutory rape. The playwright has put us in similarly uncomfortable moral positions many times before, but usually in far more interesting fashion.
Venue: Lucille Lortel Theatre, New York
Cast: Judith Light
Playwright: Neil LaBute
Director: Leigh Silverman
Set designer: Rachel Hauck
Costume designer: Emily Rebholz
Lighting designer: Matt Frey
Sound designer: Bart Fasbender
Presented by MCC Theater