Theater

Judith Light Brings Brittle Vehemence to Neil LaBute’s Sordid Play

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Most people confess a wrongdoing in order to apologize and beg forgiveness. But Mrs. Johnson (Judith Light), in Neil LaBute’s new solo play, All the Ways to Say I Love You, is ready to say everything about her past except “I’m sorry.” She stands in her office, at the high school where she teaches English and drama, surrounded by white walls, old blinds, a chair set carelessly askew, and other signs of long toil and anonymity. Looking directly into the audience, which has been cast as the nameless, faceless defenders of propriety to whom she has decided to give a full accounting, Mrs. Johnson dares us to judge her for the affair she had with a high school senior many years ago. She has told no one — except us — and she doesn’t plan to, but the guilt at the way she left her lover, and the pain of her husband’s ignorance, continue to torture her. Even so, in explaining the reasons for her actions, she makes clear that she’d repeat her choices if given the chance.

LaBute’s script includes the kinds of shocking twists that are his signature, though less of the over-the-top grotesquerie that has marred some of his work. In Light’s hands, his monologue plays like a densely plotted sonata. Rather than slowly build to a climax, her performance crescendos and diminishes at surprising intervals: She loses herself in triumphant recollections of illicit sexual ecstasy — “I loved it, every day that that boy was fucking me!” — before retreating into quiet self-reproach. At times Light seems to surprise herself with the vehemence of her emotions, so that her smallest gestures (taking off her sweater, pushing her knees together when sitting) become loaded with energy. Wisely, and aided by the subtle direction of Leigh Silverman, she never lets her character’s defiance detract from her fragility. The result, alongside a must-see display of a great actor’s craft, is a portrait of a woman reckoning, without apology or deflection, with a decision that has defined her life.

All the Ways to Say I Love You

Directed by Leigh Silverman

Lucille Lortel Theatre

121 Christopher Street

212-352-3101, mcctheater.org

Through October 23