Those of us who have followed her splendid career since Judith Light returned to the New York stage in 2010 welcomed the news that she would be appearing in a new solo play written by Neil LaBute. As expected, Light is the best thing about it. What’s less expected is how slight the play is.
All The Ways To Say I Love You is a monologue less than an hour long by a high school English teacher named Mrs. Johnson, standing in her drab office telling the audience about her experiences with one of her former students. Having been manipulative and deceitful with both the boy and her husband, Mrs. Johnson is in large measure trying to justify her actions to us, and to herself, in the name of love.
I shouldn’t tell you more than that about the story, because it is built on three surprises, although two of them are predictable, and the third is too mild to be labeled a shocker, certainly less disturbing than many of the shockers in the playwright’s previous work. In any case, this is not one of LaBute’s most substantive or satisfying efforts.
Still, the playwright is skilled in using language to reveal character, and Light makes the most of it. Her student,Tommy, Mrs. Johnson tells us, “lived in a lousy home with a mother who thought of no one but herself and did absolutely nothing to help her child. Well…one of five children, actually. At least four of whom had different dads– and I am not judging her, I’m honestly not–I mean, not too much…but those were the odds against him.”
Since her return to the stage, after long-running and fame-inducing stints on the soap “One Life to Live” and the sitcom “Who’s The Boss,” Light has won over theatergoers with her diverse and committed portrayals. She won Tony Awards in quick succession for her roles as the in-recovery alcoholic aunt in Other Desert Cities and then for Assembled Parties as the sister-in-law who is hilarious in her dissatisfaction with both her family and with the politics of the moment, even as she denies she is dissatisfied with either. I was especially impressed with her performance in Thérèse Raquin, as the aunt of murderer Keira Knightley; Light was unrecognizable as an old lady permanently dressed in mourning, who subtly evolves in our perception from autocratic to kindly to grief-stricken, inspiring a change in our attitude towards her, from revulsion to sympathy.
The attitudes towards Mrs. Johnson that LaBute’s play evokes in the audience are not as clear-cut nor as interesting, despite best efforts by director Leigh Silverman. But Judith Light is never less than watchable, which is why it is too bad All The Ways To Say I Love You, extended before it even opened, must close on October 16. Shortly afterwards, she leaves to shoot season 4 of the Amazon award-winning series “Transparent,” where she portrays Shelly Pfefferman, the ex-wife of Jeffrey Tambor’s transitioning Maura. Please return soon.
All The Ways To Say I Love You is on stage at the Lucille Lortel Theater (121 Christopher Street in Greenwich Village, New York, NY 10014) through October 16.
Tickets and details
All The Ways to Say I Love You by Neil LaBute, directed by Leigh Silverman. Featuring Judith Light. Set design by Rachel Hauck, costume design by Emily Rebholz, lighting design by Matt Frey, sound design by Bart Fasbender, prop master Raphael Mishler. Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell.