By now, we know what to expect from Neil LaBute. As one of America’s most prolific playwrights, his familiar arsenal of tricks is known to most frequent theatergoers: the artfully ironic title, the mid-play twist, the bitter battle of the sexes.
Refreshingly, LaBute’s latest one-woman play, All the Ways to Say I Love You, a vehicle for the luminous Judith Light, both adheres to and flings aside these patterns. Its closest relative in his oeuvre is 2005’s Wrecks, a rather tepid solo play at the Public Theater that starred Ed Harris and centered on a shocking central reveal hinted at in the play’s obliquely Greek-inspired title.
Fortunately, unlike Wrecks, All the Ways trades on more than simple plot twists. The play, which focuses on Mrs. Johnson (Light), a school teacher whose past relationship with a student has affected her life in manifold ways in the years since, unfolds compellingly at its start. Light as Johnson begins the play by recalling a student who asked, pointedly, “What is the weight of a lie?” The rest of the play provides Light with a chance to reveal precisely what that weight is – figuratively and, finally, literally.
Light’s Mrs. Johnson loves her husband, a lawyer of mixed race, as LaBute points out, but she also enjoys the soul-shattering sex she had with her handsome black student – the kind of lovemaking, we’re told, that her husband has never been able to provide (they’ve also never been able to have a child).
Mrs. Johnson expresses regret for the lengths she’s gone to in the name of her own pleasure, but it soon becomes clear that that initial shame is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of her deception.
Though the play lacks one of LaBute’s signature shocker twists, it still has a few smooth curves and pivots in its plot. It’s tough to discuss what those are without spoiling the plot. The biggest unanswered question hovering above All the Ways, though, is “Why?”
Why has LaBute chosen to write this play now? Since Mary Kay Letourneau made national news in 1997 for having an illicit affair with a 12-year-old student, predatory teachers – both men and women – have been a part of our national conversation, and LaBute’s play mainly echoes themes we’ve heard before without adding much of anything new.
Another big “Why?” – to ponder for this and any other monologue play – is why is this character speaking now, and to whom? LaBute never sets up a clear answer. Though it’s not a necessity to do so in order to write a compelling play, it does detract from the overall impact of the piece to be left wondering throughout its hour-long running time why this character feels particularly driven to tell her story to us now. Judith Light and Leigh Silverman’s sensitively-directed production provide compelling reasons to listen, but the story being delivered doesn’t convince quite so strongly.
All the Ways to Say I Love You is on at the Lucille Lortel Theatre until 23rd October 2016. Click here for more details.