‘Children of a Lesser God’ runs through Sept. 9 at Studio 54, 254 W. 54 St., childrenofalessergodbroadway.com
As previews began for the new Broadway revival of Mark Medoff’s 1979 romantic drama “Children of a Lesser God,” its producers proclaimed the production to be the most accessible to the non-hearing in Broadway history, with supertitles located above the stage, closed captioning available by phone app and live American Sign Language interpreting at select performances.
The play (which was made into a 1986 film with William Hurt and Marlee Matlin, who won an Oscar for her performance) concerns the challenges experienced by James Leeds (a well-meaning speech teacher at a school for the deaf) and Sarah Norman (his assertive deaf pupil, who insists on using sign language rather than speaking and reading lips) as they meet, marry and try to reconcile their conflicting ideologies.
Here, the roles are played respectively by Joshua Jackson (whose screen credits range from “The Mighty Ducks” and “Dawson’s Creek” to “The Affair”) and Lauren Ridloff, a young actress of African-American and Mexican descent who appeared in the film “Wonderstruck” and is a former Miss Deaf America. Both are making their Broadway debuts, as is Anthony Edwards, who plays Mr. Franklin.
Although the play’s central theme (the tension between celebrating one’s differences and trying to fit in with the general population) remains timely and has broad application, it has not aged well as a work of drama, with its romance plotting (including overwrought breakdown scenes) coming off today as corny and overly sentimental.
The underwhelming revival (directed by Kenny Leon, the 2014 Broadway revival of “A Raisin in the Sun”) does the play no favors with a slick, angular and metallic visual design that unnecessarily calls attention to itself. It also suffers from being played on the wide stage of Studio 54 instead of a more intimate venue.
Its primary problem is a lack of chemistry between the raw and aggressive Ridloff and the unexpressive and uninteresting Jackson. The dialogue may be stale, but the palpable tension between their characters could have sparked this production. Instead, it drags on for two and a half hours. Such intensity is achieved in a handful of scenes between Ridloff and John McGinty, who plays a pugnacious fellow student who wants Sarah to take a more aggressive position on deaf rights.