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First Nighter: Judith Light Illuminates Neil LaBute’s “All The Ways to Say I Love You,” Brian Quijada Shines in His “Where Did We Sit on the Bus?”



According to two recent plays, the price of infidelity is depressingly high. Only a month or so ago, Leslye Headland’s drama, The Layover, at Second Stage, put a pair of married cheaters through eventual hell. Now Neil LaBute uses All the Ways to Say I Love You as an illustration of the eventual devastation afflicting a teacher in the Midwest who strays with a student from her generally happy marriage.

Mrs. Johnson (Judith Light), pacing her school office, informs the audience in her obviously long-sharpened professorial way that she was once asked in class about the weight of a lie. Initially, she seems wryly amused by the query, but not too much time elapses before she gives the impression that, though she continues recounting the incident, something she’s not mentioning is preoccupying her.

Then, as if the introductory remarks were actually an extended digression, she eases uncomfortably into what she clearly feels driven to tell. In truth, “confession” is the more appropriate word. Moving constantly around the office that Rachel Hauck had designed, she even lowers the blinds on the three windows. It’s as if not only wanting to be seen by others, she’s also hinting that she’s about to tell a dark tale.

Sometime in the past–she doesn’t quite specify how many years before–she allowed herself to slip into an affair with a black student named Tommy, who for sexual prowess far exceeded her beloved husband Eric. He is also black. The difference between man and man, Mrs Johnson godson, is so marked that in describing that distance, she soon drops her contained manner more than momentarily.

She also explains that while Eric and she have never been successful at having a child, she was impregnated by Tommy. She says that, in her estimation, “of all the ways to say I love you” to a husband, the best one is announcing a pregnancy–but not in her specific circumstances.

That situation is what determines the remainder of LaBute’s haunting hour-long monologue. It’s “haunting,” because the playwright is really telling a ghost story–with the ghost being the specter of Mrs. Johnson’s wrenched attitude about jeopardizing her marriage.

To say more about the final 10 minutes is to spoil LaBute’s perfect ending, but it might not be out of line to report that the question posed at the start about the weight of a lie turns out to be not such a digression, after all.

While LaBute has written an unusual scary piece just as Halloween approaches, he’s also put together a powerful one-women show that two-time Tony winner Light (Jon Robin Baitz’s Other Desert Cities, Richard Greenberg’s The Assembled Parties) shapes as a tour de force.

Under Leigh Silverman’s seamless direction, Light meets the requirements of moving from Mrs. Johnson’s assured teacher to a wife in love with her supportive husband to a woman recalling the thrill of physical passion to someone attempting to deal with guilt that won’t be assuaged.

New York theater is lucky to have any number of actors who, while working regularly in movies and/or television, make a point of returning to the stage as often as they can. Light, most recently in Thérese Raquin and now a regular on the hit series Transparent, is one of those dedicated (and multi-award-winning) performers. We’re lucky to have her back again and in another deep-etched portrayal.
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Remember this name: Brian Quijada. Still in his twenties, the monologist, whose mother is Austrian-Swiss and whose father is Mexican, is telling his life story in Where Did We Sit on the Bus?, at Ensemble Studio Theatre through October 9.

In four succinct but inarguable words, the piece is brilliant. Drawing on his many skills, Quijada begins with prenatal silent happiness in the womb, reenacts his jarring birth and then fills in just about everything he did as he grew up to deny his father’s wishes and became the accomplished playwright-actor he ineluctably proves to be. He does it all in about 80 minutes.

Upstage on a four-foot-high metal table, the strapping lad uses synthesizing equipment to enter the beatboxing underscoring he keeps going as he dances, plays instruments and acts with seductive fervor.

The title refers to his bafflement when learning in school about whites, blacks and civil rights. He’s left wondering where he would have been sent when boarding a segregated bus.

Perhaps Quijada’s most compelling element is his humanity, which is surely made even more manifest under Chay Yew’s direction. Anyone reaching the denouement without feeling an emotional tug might want to do some serious psychic introspection.

Enticing elements are also added to Where Did We Sit on the Bus? by Diane D. Fairchild’s intricate lighting and especially by the colorful patterns Liviu Pasare frequently projects not on the walls but on the floor.

While becoming increasingly impressed by Quijada, more than one audience member might find himself or herself thinking this should be a must-see theatrical outing for a certain presidential candidate currently spreading racist bile.

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