Theatre Review: Judith Light in Neil LaBute’s “All the Ways to Say I Love You”

judith-light

“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

EXPLORING THE WORLD “OFF BROADWAY”

Off Broadway

They say the neon lights are bright on Broadway. But many Off Broadway shows are equally dazzling.

When you think of New York City theatre, most likely the first word that comes to mind is Broadway. And yes, with 40 theatres, the Big Apple’s Great White Way is justifiably regarded as the theatre capital of the world. But if you haven’t explored the exciting world of Off Broadway, you’re missing out on some terrific theatrical experiences.

What is the difference between “Broadway” and “Off Broadway?” The definition has less to do with a theatre’s actual location than with its seating capacity. In fact, you’ll find very few “Broadway” theatres with an actual Broadway address. (Since you asked, the four Broadway houses that are “on Broadway” are the aptly named Broadway Theatre, the Marquis, the Palace, and the Winter Garden).

A Broadway theatre has at least 500 seats. An Off Broadway theatre has between 100 and 499 seats. (Any venue with 99 or fewer seats is classified as Off Off Broadway). Almost all official Broadway theatres are located between 41st and 54th Streets, east and west of Broadway. One exception: Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont, way up on West 65th Street.

The largest Broadway house, with 1938 seats, is the Lyric (formerly the Foxwoods, Hilton, and Ford) on 42nd Street. The honor of smallest Broadway house goes to the Helen Hayes (formerly the Little Theatre) on 44th Street, with 597 seats.

What are some notable Off Broadway theatre venues? Here are five well worth a visit:

Laura Pels Theatre (111 W. 46th St.). Part of the prestigious not-for-profit Roundabout Theatre company (which also produces shows on Broadway at the American Airlines Theatre and Studio 54), the Pels presents top quality fare, often featuring star performers.

Currently showing: Indian Ink, by four-time Tony Award winner Tom Stoppard, starring Tony and Golden Globe winner Rosemary Harris and accomplished British actress Romola Garai. This is an engaging, romantic tale that spans two continents (India and Europe) and two eras (1930’s and 1980’s). Stoppard explores his favorite topics: art and relationships.

Playwrights Horizons (416 W. 42nd St.). Playwrights is a 43-year-old theatre company dedicated to the support and development of contemporary American playwrights, composers and lyricists. The Playwrights complex includes 2 theatres–the Main Stage and the Peter Jay Sharp Theatre.

Currently showing: Grand Concourse, by Heidi Schreck, a two-time Obie Award-winning actor. The play, set in a Bronx church soup kitchen, where “idealism and reality meet head on”.

Vineyard Theatre (108 E. 15th St.). The nonprofit Vineyard theatre has produced groundbreaking new plays and musicals for 30 years, including Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive (1998 Pulitzer) and Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women (1994 Pulitzer). Several of its productions have transferred to Broadway, including Avenue Q and The Lyons with Linda Lavin.

Currently showing: Billy & Ray, by Mike Bencivenga, starring Vincent Kartheiser (TV’s “Mad Men”), Drew Gehling, Larry Pine (Broadway’s Casa Valentina), and Sophie von Haselberg (Bette Midler’s “Mini Me” daughter). Directed by Garry Marshall. The true story of how Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler battled the Hollywood censors and each other to create the movie classic Double Indemnity.

Signature Theatre (480 W. 42nd St.). Founded in 1991 by James Houghton, Signature is the first theatre company to devote an entire season to the work of a single playwright. The organization recently moved into the gorgeous, Frank Gehry-designed Pershing Square Center, which features three performance spaces connected by a central lobby and café. Every seat during a show’s initial run costs only $25.

Currently showing: Our Lady of Kibeho, by current playwright-in-residence Katori Hall. The play tells the story of how a young Rwandan school girl’s visions of the Virgin Mary affects her school and village.

Coming soon: A Particle of Dread (The Oedipus Variations), by former Signature playwright-in-residence Sam Shepard—a modern-day take on Oedipus Rex.

The Lucille Lortel Theatre (121 Christopher St.). Formerly the Theatre de Lys, this intimate Greenwich Village theatre was renamed for actress/producer Lortel in 1981. Her portrait graces the lobby. The Lortel presents works staged by various non-profit theatre companies.

Currently showing: MCC Theatre’s Punk Rock, by Simon Stephens (he also wrote Broadway’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time). Set in a private school outside of Manchester, England, the play is based on Stephens’ own experiences as a school teacher. The play is described as “an honest and unnerving chronicle of contemporary adolescence at the breaking point.”

I hope you’ll start exploring the wonderful world that lies just Off Broadway. I promise you’ll discover a treasure trove of insightful, professional productions—and since ticket prices Off Broadway are generally much more modest than those for Broadway productions—you’ll save a bundle while enjoying excellent theatre.

Click here for a comprehensive list of links to Off Broadway theatre.

You can find a comprehensive listing of Broadway shows, along with discount information and reviews, at Broadway Helper.