Friday, October 14, 2016

80. Review: ALL THE WAYS TO SAY I LOVE YOU (seen October 13, 2016)

“What’s the Weight of a Lie?”

Once, when I was on a theatre awards committee, a female member expressed reluctance to see a play by Neil LaBute because she was so averse to the perceived misogyny in his work. That strain is certainly evident in certain plays but, on the whole, the prolific LaBute’s work (In the Company of Men, The Shape of Things, Fat Pig) shows him to be an equal opportunity misanthrope, with gender irrelevant to the nastiness on display. Recent LaBute plays, however, have toned down his cynicism and demonstrated greater sympathy for his damaged characters.
Judith Light: Photo: Joan Marcus.
Such is the case with his latest effort, All the Ways to Say I Love You, an emotionally fraught, 50-minute monologue (ignore anyone who tells you it’s an hour long), at the Lortel, in which Tony-winning actress Judith Light (TV’s “Transparent”) is giving a riveting, if sometimes overwrought, performance in an MCC production.  She plays Mrs. Johnson, a married, middle-aged, and childless high school English and drama teacher, “somewhere in the Midwest"); 15 years earlier, she had an affair with a student named Tommy, a “second-year Senior,” a designation perhaps meant to downplay the possibility of statutory rape. The play is her confession of how it happened and its aftermath.
Judith Light. Photo: Joan Marcus.
No context is given for why she’s making her revelations, which begin (following preshow music of romantic ballads by female pop singers of the fifties) with her telling us of a student who stunned her by asking, “What is the weight of a lie?” Moving about, but mainly standing downstage, in her realistically depicted office (designed by Rachel Hauck and lit by Matt Frey), she speaks in the most intimate terms, describing her unsatisfactory sex life with her racially mixed husband, Eric, a lawyer, who she insists she loves but with whom she’s been unable to conceive.
Judith Light. Photo: Joan Marcus.
As she gets deeper and deeper into the thickets of her relationship with the boy (presumably African-American but nonetheless racially ambiguous), she releases a torrent of raves about the “Wow!” quality of their sexual experiences albeit without using undue vulgarity or descriptive imagery. No need; the enthusiasm with which she remembers is enough. It almost seems as if she’s asking us to condone her infidelity because of the physical gratification it gave her. But gradually the weight of her lie presses on her, at one point midway through dropping a clue to an ultimate disclosure that close listeners will probably pick up at once.
Judith Light. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Student-teacher romances have long been news fodder, but there’s nothing especially novel or unusual in LaBute’s take on the subject. The takeaway is not the play but Light’s bravura performance, which exposes feelings of love, lust, anxiety, and guilt. Under Leigh Silverman’s precise direction, Light’s constantly shifting emotional trajectory keeps you glued to every word.
Judith Light. Photo: Joan Marcus.
The slender, distinctively-voiced actress, dressed casually in gray slacks and top with a maroon sweater (by designer Emily Rebholz), starts off in a tone that prompts mild laughter. As the seriousness of Mrs. Johnson’s story becomes evident, however, the chuckles subside and the bantering turns to anything but. At times, Light’s passionate expressiveness makes her seem more a victim in a classic tragedy than the character she’s playing; on the other hand, without her mesmeric acting there’d be little reason to visit the Lortel except to find out (as you do) how much a lie weighs.


Lucille Lortel Theatre
121 Christopher St., NYC
Through October 23