Neil LaBute’s new drama for MCC is a short monologue for “Transparent” star Judith Light that takes an all-too-familiar phenomenon and adds a dimension: What happens to teachers who fall into improper relationships with students—and don’t get caught?
“All the Ways to Say I Love You” casts Light as a middle-aged English teacher and guidance counselor delivering a confessional. She begins by talking about “the weight” of a lie, and from there sifts through the many she has perpetrated, assessing both their moral “heft” and the burdens she still carries because of them.
Consider yourself on notice: It’s a testament to Light’s likability and the effectiveness of LaBute’s prose that you may handily forget her “Mrs. Johnson” is duplicitous, irresponsible ... and to some degree disconnected from reality.
Early on, we learn about the circumstances that led to an affair with a young man named Tommy, more than a decade past. There was the cooled sexual relationship with her husband, after their efforts to have children failed; her student's chaotic home life and need for a nurturing presence. She’s got excuses and justifications by the boatload.
She’s also still got a job, which dawns on us as we absorb the setting: her tidy office, with its Scholastic-branded mug full of pens and pencils.
Light must track a range of emotions for an hour, with barely a break for a sip of water. She does so magnetically, animating LaBute’s material with her husky voice and wide, dark eyes. There is no shame in her retelling; indeed, there’s lingering delight in recalling her own power to affect pleasure on a young man.
At the performance I attended, one graphic line of dialogue left the audience in a hush, and I ached with embarrassment for the theatergoer who had foolishly left on her iPhone: There are some things Siri finds too loaded to deal with.
LaBute’s 10th piece for MCC is somewhat threadbare, but don't let that dissuade you from seeing it: he's reaching for exquisitely interesting material. Director Leigh Silverman (“Violet”) teases out a layered performance from stage veteran Light.
It’s implied early on that Mrs. Johnson’s marriage remains intact. She proclaims that she feels no remorse for her deeds, but she clearly isn’t immune to guilt, either. In Labute’s world, one of the ways to say I love you is to keep your mouth shut about your failings and swallow every bitter pill they’ve earned you.
“All the Ways to Say I Love You,” through Oct. 18 at MCC’s Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher St. Tickets: $85-$99. Call 212-352-3101.
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