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All the Ways to Say I Love You

What is the weight of a lie? — This question posed by a student in high school teacher-guidance counselor Mrs. Johnson's English class that sets the teacher's memories about her relationship with another student in motion.
All the Ways to Say I Love You
Judith Light (Photo: Joan Marcus)
with All the Ways to Say I love You Neil Labute returns to a genre at which he excels, the solo play. It also accommodates his penchant for love stories that take audiences to places unlikely to lead to a happily ever after ending.

Whether alone on stage or interacting with others, LaBute's characters have always challenged our concept of acceptable social behavior. Mrs. Johnson, the high school English teacher and part-time guidance counselor currently center stage at the Lortel Theater is no exception. However, as MCC regulars know, despite the darkness of LaBute's meditations on love, they tend to also have funny moments — for example, the memorably funny pick-up scene in Fat Pig , the first of his plays at MCC. Indeed, All the Ways to Say I Love You again delivers funny as well as teary moments.

We meet Mrs. Johnson in her office (authentically furnished by Rachel Hauck). She's an attractive woman of a certain age. What prompts her to confide in us is a student's question about whether a lie can be weighed and, if so, what its weight would be. Though less than an hour long, the biographical monologue that follows takes us down a trail of memories about lies that were part of Mrs. Johnson's relationship with her husband Eric, a lawyer, and Tommy, a former student at her school.

It doesn't take a trained psychologist to suspect that there's something not quite right about a wife repeatedly telling us how much she loves her husband. Is she trying to convince us or herself?

As for Tommy, the student, she remembers him as a first years student in her English class. However, their meetings in her office began when he was repeating his senior year largely due to a difficult home environment. Since the teachers at her High school in a nameless Midwestern city also serve as part-time guidance counselors, it's in that capacity that Tommy seeks her help for still getting into a college despite being a poor student with a less than impressive record.

The idea that a grounded, sympathetic woman and a troubled young man needing help to have a chance for a good life can end up having an affair may once have been a super shocker. It's still an off-putting idea, but in a world where anything can happen and often does, it's not all that impossible to imagine. And in case you think I'm giving away a critical plot point, the teacher-Tommy affair comes up right after Mrs. Johnson slips into her monologue.

Like Wrecks , my favorite LaBute solo play, All the Ways to Say I Love You is sublimely cast. As Ed Harris managed to keep us fully engaged and curious to the very end about where he was going in Wrecks Judith Light with her distinctive voice and nuanced performance pulls us right in.

As the the Grimm Brothers' Hansel and Gretel scattered bread crumbs to find their way back home, so Light, subtly and with perfect timing, drops a word here and a phrase there to which close attention must be paid by us her confidantes — for example, her rueful admission of being occasionally forgetful and repeating herself. . . her reference Tommy's good looks and "choosing him" as part of telling us about the way the counseling sessions in her office began. These are just a few such bread crumbs that may be markers to bring Light's remembrances to a Labutian finale.

All the Ways to Say I Love You, lacks the clever literary conceit of Wrecks. Its twist on top of twist ending can be more readily predicted. Though the prose is still sharp, the big trick here is Light's performance: Watching her shift moods, amusingly wry one minute, wrenchingly sad the next. . . appearing open and ordinary (well, this being Light, glamorously so) yet clearly complex enough to mix personal neediness with crafty manipulation. And with director Leigh Silverman keeping her moving around the stage there's less of the inertness common in so many solo plays. What's more, Mr. LaBute's sin-suffer-repent tale does also address larger issues of class and race.

Since many audience members will probably spend more time getting to the theater than watching this play, it would be nice if Mr. LaBute could create another short monologue to be paired with All the Way. . . for a fuller evening — maybe even letting us hear Tommy's version of the story which would no doubt resonate with MCC's many young fans.

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All the Ways to Say I Love You by Neil LaBute
Directed by Leigh Silverman
Cast: Judith Light
Set design: Rachel Hauck
Costume design: Emily Rebholtz
Lighting design: Matt Frey
Sound design: Bart Fasbender
Stage Manager: Amanda Kosack
Production Stage Manager: David H. Lurie
Runnng Time: Approximately 1 hour (50 minutes at the performances covered)
MCC at Lucille Lortel 121 Christopher St
From 9/06/16; opening 9/28/16; closing 10/23/16.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 9/23 press preview

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