Neil LaBute has spent the majority of his career deconstructing the societal taboos that most people mindlessly adopt with nary a thought to their validity. With All the Ways to Say I Love You – the first play of MCC Theater’s 30th anniversary season, of which Mr. LaBute is the playwright-in-residence – he sets his sights on exploring the morality of the hot-button issue of teachers forging “inappropriate” relationships with their underage students. Those textual air quotes are basically the crux of the play: even though almost everyone would immediately write-off such a relationship as immoral and thus inappropriate, this one-woman show strives to understand the psychology that drove the female teacher at its center to engage in such near-universally agreed upon immorality. This understanding will hopefully elicit empathy for a visibly tortured soul whose perspective they never even considered, which has long been one of the foundational goals of drama since its origins in Greek tragedy.
This theatre of antiquity is clearly an influence on the play; its central character’s monologue that encompasses the entire duration harkens back to the likes of Cassandra and Electra, two of the most popular female figures that the tragedians often depicted alone on stage railing against the systematically-flawed society that forced them into their misery. By giving voice to women who were often treated as nothing more than collateral damage, Sophocles and Euripides and Aeschylus and others empathetically dissected the questionably unfair but still widely-held and thus societally-normative beliefs that basically dictated their tragic fates.
The most famous example of this is probably Aeschylus’s trilogy the Oresteia, in which these women’s plights culminate in the third and final part titled The Eumenides that explores a subject at the heart of LaBute’s play: human morality versus legal morality. At that time, the latter was determined by the gods, who lorded over and passed down to peon mortals the behavioral rules that were supposed to be abided by out of fear of divine retribution. For contemporary society – in which All the Ways to Say I Love You is set – the legal system of the government has taken over this responsibility. Legal morality works best when it conforms to human morality; no one has a problem when what humans believe to be right and wrong is reflected in the law, whether it be that upheld by the gods in the sky or the mortal ones in the Supreme Court. As such, these laws must be amendable based on the changing beliefs of a society’s citizens, yet at the same time they should also transcend the fleeting whims of humans motivated by short-sighted emotional fluctuations.
Aeschylus understood all of this, and concluded the Oresteia with a declaration regarding the necessity of people’s voices to be constantly heard to ensure the success of a democracy. All oppositional perspectives must be accounted for and wrestled with, and then the best of which should be chosen by a jury of peers – representing the rest of their society – in an attempt to strengthen it. Aeschylus knew and LaBute knows that theatre is perhaps the best artistic vehicle to communicate this ideal – it can present the voices of minorities, and the audience acts as a sort of jury for the court of public opinion who may be swayed by these voices. Delving into the relationship between legal morality and human morality – particularly where there may, or perhaps should be a dissonance between them – will always be prime fodder for drama.
In All the Ways to Say I Love You, LaBute implicitly suggests that the taboo surrounding statutory rape – which is itself an unfair phrase given the fact that many times this ‘rape’ is 100% consensual – may be a case of human morality blindly following legal morality. His teacher engages in a totally consensual relationship with one of her students, yet the fact that he’s underage almost guarantees that most of the audience will immediately label her as evil. Many of them would still have strongly negative opinions of her if the student happened to be 19, but the illegal nature of this situation is basically a death sentence in regards to how she’s perceived in the court of public opinion.
Who’s going to publicly say that statutory rape may not be as bad as people believe, especially in the current climate when ‘rape’ deservedly comes with exclusively and pervasively negative connotations? Should we really treat someone differently based on a difference of only a few years? On what basis can the law blindly decide that a person can only give consent at 18 years old? Are we to believe that no one younger than that age can actually strike up a healthy, romantic and/or sexual relationship with someone older? Who can definitively prove the legitimacy of a person’s love, or when or with whom they’re allowed to find it? Are this country’s puritanical roots preventing us from acknowledging that sex can play an integral, non-damaging role in a mutually beneficial, romantic relationship regardless of the relative ages of both participants? These are the types of detail-oriented, situation-specific questions that the law – and the societal belief it inspires – often does not consider, but theatre can, and All the Ways to Say I Love You does.
Though variations of the lengthy title are sporadically stated throughout the monologue, the one most related to these questions comes late in the play when she talks about “all the ways in which I promised to help Tommy,” the name of the student with whom she has the affair. The structural similarity between this line and the title draws a connection between different ways that people can say ‘I love you’ and what the teacher does to help her lover, including literally putting this impoverished kid through college with her own money. This sort of behavior is an expression of love in the same vein as saying, “I love you.” Without the heightened feelings that comes with an intimate relationship, she almost surely never would’ve felt compelled to help him in such a beneficial way. And yet, this would have absolutely no bearing on how she’s judged by a majority of others in this day and age.
LaBute includes a brilliant little character detail to emphasize how radically the societal norms that often affect such judgements can change over time: the white teacher’s cuckolded husband is actually black. Back in the day, an interracial relationship would have been considered as immorally transgressive as her fling with the student. In no way is LaBute equating the two types of relationships – the potentially harmful effects that a young person may suffer from innocently entering a mature relationship far outweigh any downside of people of different races interacting. Instead, he brings up such a relationship to remind the audience just how quickly something that was once considered immoral can become moral simply by examining it from a different perspective.
All the Ways to Say I Love You attempts to provide such a perspective by plumbing the depths of the psychology of the type of person willing to behave in a way deemed irreprehensible by most. Since everyone who enters into these relationships obviously aren’t just simply pedophiles, what can possibly drive a person to be willing to do so? The monologue serves as a sort of window into the psyche of this woman, symbolically conveyed by the black walls surrounding the set making the stage look like a literal window into this teacher’s office, her inner sanctum where she’s supposed to help children better understand their own lives and the world around them. This darkness surrounding the set also represents the debatably-justifiable societal isolation facing the teacher due to her behavior.
Director Leigh Silverman – whose female presence in the rehearsal room was undeniably a godsend when dealing with such a gender-sensitive subject – includes a plethora of such subtle theatrical devices to highlight the subtext of the play, from the Greek tragedy-esque tonal music and fantastically drastic time shifts expressed by the change in lighting calling attention to the play’s aforementioned similarities to theatre of antiquity, to the noticeably cloudy surfaces of the set – particularly on the windows and lone clock – expressing how easily the ‘light’ of truth regarding the morality of this situation can be obscured by the societal norms of the time in which the situation unfolds.
The most interesting of these theatrical decisions, however, may be the aforementioned clock – specifically, how it seems to lack hands of any kind underneath the cloudiness. This connects to the teacher’s readily-apparent refusal to regret any of her actions in the past. When trying to impart lessons to their students regarding history, teachers rarely dabble in regret; rather, they will transform mistakes into examples of how humanity often learns from the error of its ways, thereby facilitating progress. The teacher applies the same perspective to her own life: instead of admitting to herself that she regrets her questionable handling of the affair that led to more misery than expected, she’s resolute in her belief that she would do everything in the same way again if she could turn back the clock.
The hand-less clock captures the state of her current existence: obsessively rehashing her own story to herself – quite literally night after night after night on MCC’s stage – because she’s unable to find happiness in her present, but equally unable to view the past through a sufficiently critical lens to allow her to see how she can use the knowledge that comes from regret to improve her life going forward. In a way, this is her hamartia, the word in Greek tragedy for a character’s fatal flaw that leads to their tragic downfall. A morally-conformist play would have made her insatiable lust for the student the source of her despair, but since she was miserable before the affair and would have most probably continued to be without it, LaBute wisely suggests that her far more universally-resonant distaste for regret is actually to blame.
Judith Light – currently on hiatus from her phenomenal turn in the Emmy Award-winning Amazon series Transparent – communicates this distaste with realistic aplomb. She’s obviously in the spotlight the entire time, and she delivers a commandingly outstanding performance from beginning to end. Whereas many other performers would have relished the opportunity to excessively EMOTE the character’s gradual emotional breakdown with all eyes in the theatre on them, Light subtly projects the teacher’s overwhelming desire to cling to the reality upon which she’s established her life even as the cracks to this foundation begin visibly appearing on the face of her performance. She nervously bobs her head and often struggles to find the right words to reinforce her desired reality, but often her deep insecurity regarding the futility of this endeavor bubbles over into emotional outbursts when she senses her reality slipping away despite her best efforts.
Light and Leigh’s invaluable contributions to the production cannot be overstated, especially since many of my observations would not have been made clear on the page alone. Though LaBute does revel in the type of subtext that only precise directing and acting – both of which are on display here – can elucidate, All the Ways to Say I Love You doesn’t suffer from too much subtext; rather, it suffers from too little text at all. As much as I respect notoriously edit-prone playwrights trying to tell their stories as efficiently as possible, the minuscule length of the play – a little under 60 minutes – feels like laziness rather than concision. Besides many people probably being dismayed at paying full price for so little – MCC couldn’t have paired it with another one-act monologue? – the subject matter simply demanded more.
LaBute’s execution fails to match the intrigue of his noble intention to deconstruct a potentially unjustifiable taboo. The play excels at touching upon endlessly fascinating ideas and concepts, but does not spend enough time fully exploring them. Yes, playwrights should never do all of the thinking for their audience, but much of the cognitive work heretofore expressed in this piece was inspired more by LaBute reminding me of my previous thoughts on the matter versus making me ponder it in different ways. Fellow theatregoers not as prone to viewing these types of people through an unconventional perspective will probably not be as receptive to what LaBute is trying to do. They may consider his – and in turn his character’s – viewpoint, but won’t feel THAT differently about her walking out of the theatre than they would’ve before walking in.
And that’s really the biggest knock against the play; it’s clearly trying to elicit empathy for the teacher, but doesn’t sufficiently tackle every angle of the situation to do so. It’s impossible to even formulate a perfunctory opinion of her actions – and the headline-grabbing topic they’re related to – without knowing more about her husband and the effects that the affair has on the student. Plus, given the teeny-tiny length, LaBute’s customarily excessive sensationalist tics – from the cheesy romantic songs played pre-show to the teacher’s name being Mrs. Johnson (GET IT?! JOHNSON?! LIKE THE SLANG TERM FOR PENIS?!) – seem more detrimentally prominent when not surrounded by as much substantive content. Props to LaBute for trying to bite off more than he ended up being able to chew, but he easily could’ve and should’ve given himself more time to chew.
As much as All the Ways to Say I Love You actually fits the normally far too pedestrian high school auditorium vibe of the Lucille Lortel Theatre – MCC’s current home before they finally build a long-needed space of their own in a few years – I can’t help but think that the play would have fared better at another off-Broadway theatre company. Though residencies caaaaan afford playwrights the time and creative freedom to pursue their wildest fictional fantasies, the free reign afforded to them through such positions as LaBute’s ‘playwright-in-residence’ title often hinders the quality of their work. If he knows that MCC has promised to produce almost anything he writes, will LaBute really put in as much effort into the construction of his dramas as a playwright who’s striving to impress a theatre enough to convince them to stage her play?
This sort of lax dramaturgy runs rampant throughout All the Ways to Say I Love You. For instance, who the hell is Mrs. Johnson apparently talking to?! She’s in her classroom…yet she’s aware of the audience – huh? Her references to teaching Shakespeare (the king of such audience-directed soliloquies) and the play’s relation to Greek tragedy – in addition to some of the other theories I’ve put forth here – somewhat justifies this theatrical format, but it’s just one amongst many factors that needed to be fleshed out.
All the Ways to Say I Love You works as an introductory character study, but ultimately feels more like the research that playwrights often write to get inside one of their characters’ heads before embarking on a full-length play that includes all of the other essential roles that would allow LaBute to achieve what he set out to do. In its current state, the play actually feels unfinished.
There’s a reason Aeschylus made the Oresteia a trilogy…