“What is the weight of a lie?” That’s the opening line and key question of Neil LaBute’s new one act/one character play now playing at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. Although the question—posed by high school English teacher/guidance counselor Mrs. Johnson (Tony, Drama Desk, and Emmy Award winner Judith Light, currently starring in the Golden Globe winning TV series “Transparent”)—seems theoretical, one hour later, when the play (really a monologue) ends, we learn that the answer is in fact, quite literal.
Mrs. Johnson first pondered the question many years before, when a student, inspired by something the teacher mentioned in passing about the “weight of the soul” asked it in class. Mrs. Johnson tells us, “For once, I didn’t have an answer. The teacher’s job is to put forth answers. It doesn’t have to be the right one…We work together to find the answer. And the truth in the end may surprise us all—even me.”
The question about the weight of a lie provides the foundation for the play. Mrs. Johnson is living with the consequences of a very big lie: she violated the #1 law of teacher/student relationships and slept with one of her students, a “second year senior” named Tommy. And that’s not her worst transgression: she became pregnant (she and her husband had tried and failed to conceive a child) and deceived her husband into believing the child was his. Now, years later, she struggles with the guilt of her actions while attempting to somehow rationalize them as acceptable. One thing she knows with absolute certainty: the weight of her particular lie is exactly 6 pounds, 3 ounces.
Ms. Light, an accomplished, respected, and much-loved multiple award-winning actress, gives a breathtakingly watchable performance, covering a wide swath of emotional territory within the short time span of the play. Her Mrs. Johnson is by turns contrite, unrepentant, lascivious, and tortured. Light transitions seamlessly through each of these disparate facets of her character—a master’s class in acting. At the end, we’re left to wonder if Mrs. Johnson is crazy—driven mad by the basic inescapable wrongness of her actions and the resulting guilt that goes along with bearing the weight of the lies she has created to cover up her wrongs.
Leigh Silverman (Violet, Well, LaBute’s The Way We Get By, and the upcoming Sweet Charity with Sutton Foster) provides able direction to Ms. Light and Rachel Hauck’s realistic, somewhat claustrophobic set design of Mrs. Johnson’s guidance office creates just the right atmosphere. But ultimately, the play’s the thing, and in this case, things don’t really add up.
All the Ways to Say I Love You isn’t very effective or satisfying, for several reasons. First, it’s never clear to whom Mrs. Johnson is speaking. Yes, she’s addressing us, the audience, but as stand-ins for whom? A jury? God? Her husband? Herself? The lack of context is confusing and off-putting. Second, it’s difficult to feel much (if any) empathy for Mrs. Johnson. Although she says she loves her husband, she betrayed him—along with her professional ethics—by turning to an impressionable boy in an attempt to fill the void in her passionless marriage. When she speaks graphically (and rhapsodically) about her erotic adventures with Tommy, it’s difficult to suppress the “ick” factor. And the fact that Mrs. Johnson believes that her student benefited from the inappropriate liaison (“I pushed him to go to college; he is successful because of me”) doesn’t help her cause. True, LaBute loves to make us squirm by forcing us to confront the most unattractive, odious parts of ourselves. (He has said, “We humans are fairly barbarous bunch.”). But because he shows us nothing of Mrs. Johnson’s better nature, she remains distant from us, at arm’s length, to be regarded as more of a curiosity than as a fellow human being.
On paper, All the Ways to Say I Love You isn’t one of LaBute’s weightier works; it doesn’t hold its own compared to In the Company of Men, Reasons to be Pretty, Fat Pig, and his other, more substantial plays. Without the luminous Ms. Light inhabiting the tortured, lustful soul of Mrs. Johnson, the play would no doubt be a good deal less effective, the tale much less engaging. But the opportunity to experience Ms. Light’s incandescent acting magic up close and personal in the intimate space of the Lortel adds infinite heft to the lightweight material. As one of the premier actresses of her generation, working across television, film, and thankfully, live theater mediums, Judith Light never brings us anything less than her “A” game. Through her work and commitment to her craft, she repeatedly shows her audiences “all the ways to say I love you”.
All the Ways to Say I Love You is at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher St., through October 23. For ticket information: www.mcctheater.org