WHAT “All the Ways to Say I Love You”
WHERE Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher St.
INFO $79-$125; 212-352-3101; mcctheater.org
BOTTOM LINE Brief, astute character study about the boundaries of love
Leave it to Neil LaBute to find a heretofore unknown — at least to me — way to express one’s love. In “All the Ways to Say I Love You” (LaBute’s 10th play for MCC Theater), the chameleonic and ever-challenging Judith Light plays a longtime English teacher and married guidance counselor who, in one brief but chock-full hour, tells us how, 15 or so years earlier, she had engaged in an unusual gesture of love.
As anyone who knows LaBute’s work can expect, a creeping primal darkness ensnares us in what appears to be an ordinary life.
We are in the lived-in, smudgy-lemon little office at the high school where Mrs. Johnson has taught and counseled for 30 years. She begins by repeating a question a friend once asked her: “What is the weight of a lie?”
The question is almost forgotten as she explains about her long marriage to her husband, a lawyer of mixed race. It is a happy marriage, except for a few disappointments in the bedroom and in the way he sometimes talks down to her. As foreshadowing builds (“Lord of the Flies” is a staple on her reading list), she begins to describe a relationship with Tommy, a second-year senior, “probably with some behavior disorder,” who presses his leg a bit too close to hers at their first counseling session.
You can guess what happens next, though LaBute, who doesn’t mind having his sinister work described as “morality plays,” does not settle for mere voyeurism in one of those perilous affairs between teachers and students.
Light, with her early days on soaps, her two midcareer Tonys and her current daring portrayal of the abandoned wife in “Transparent,” seems just a bit uneasy in Mrs. Johnson’s more revealing sexual exclamations. Then again, so would this woman. Under Leigh Silverman’s astute direction, she flips between girlish and matronly, giddy and unseemly in a character study that veers toward flippancy before digging in deep.