Splat! That’s playwright Neil LaBute with egg all over his face for penning “All the Ways to Say I Love You,” an embarrassingly clumsy one-act about an older woman musing on her affair with a teenage lover. Splat! Splat! That’s for director Leigh Silverman and actress Judith Light, the Tony winner nominated for an Emmy in “Transparent,” caught in the gooey crossfire in this MCC Theater production.
Mrs. Johnson, the middle-aged high school teacher played by Light, begins this confessional monologue by defining her job in the exalted terms of a professional calling. “To teach. To lead. To be an example.”
This dedicated teacher doesn’t dwell for long on how that noble calling was compromised when she seduced a troubled second-year senior she was counseling. She’s far more vocal, however, about how great the forbidden sex was with young Tommy (“Wow!”…. “I loved it!”), especially when compared with dull marital sex with her tired old husband, who was “not someone who took your breath away in the bedroom — and that is simply a fact.”
Mrs. Johnson teaches English, and LaBute always did have a way with words. But while the language of the play makes for easy listening, not so the thinking behind it.
Does this educated woman really believe that “a man, any man, doing the same thing” would get away with only “a slap on the back and a knowing wink”? Does the playwright? Even creepier, does the teacher really believe that “I was helping Tommy” to get through his parents’ divorce, among other things, “and not just using him” for her own pleasure?
Light is one of our most reliable stage actors, winning Tonys for roles in “Other Desert Cities” and “The Assembled Parties.” But she appears to be experiencing real discomfort getting through Mrs. Johnson’s humiliating confession, discomfort beyond the character’s own distress about the lies she’s told to her husband and her lover — and the ones she keeps telling to herself.
But then, there’s no context for Mrs. Johnson’s exposure of her deepest, most painful secrets. Without any obvious guidance from the writer, she just looks out at a roomful of strangers and bares her soul. Who’s she supposed to be talking to, anyway? The audience, obviously, but as that audience, we have no clue who we’re supposed to represent.
Although she’s been well-dressed by costumer Emily Rebholz, the poor woman is so exposed, she might as well be naked.