NEW YORK — Aside from a brief prologue, the first thing the character Sarah says in “Children of a Lesser God” is — well, I can’t tell you.
That’s because Sarah speaks American Sign Language, and I have only polite English at my disposal. ASL wins, hands down — or, as the case may be, hands up.
The pungency of sign language is not the subject of Mark Medoff’s “Children of a Lesser God,” which opened Wednesday at Studio 54 in a mixed bag of a Broadway revival directed by Kenny Leon. But it’s a wonderful bonus to the play’s fierce rivalry between those who promote spoken English as the highest attainable form of communication and those who are staunch partisans of silence.
Sarah, 26 and deaf since birth, is one of those partisans. For 21 years, the school where the play takes place has tried to push speech and lip-reading on her, only hardening her resolve not to learn them. “I don’t do things that I can’t do well,” she explains.
That would seem like rationalization if Sarah weren’t so smart and, in a knockout professional debut performance by Lauren Ridloff, so superb at ASL. Her fluency and expressiveness make the English speakers around her seem, as one of them actually calls her, dumb.
Perhaps the novelty of that idea helped to make the original Broadway production of “Children of a Lesser God,” which opened in 1980, a hit. Today its dramaturgy seems creaky, even when the argument is crackling.
Naturally, the conceit of the play requires Sarah, who now works at the school as a custodian, to face a persuasive combatant in the form of her latest teacher, James. Rather less naturally, it requires her to fall in love with him.
And wouldn’t you know it: James is not only a fan of spoken English, but also a fan of his own voice. He’s glib and lordly and — giving credit to a lovely performance by Joshua Jackson — charming, too. He almost makes you forget that he’s browbeating Sarah into the denial of something she sees as a central, positive element of her personhood.
To her, as to many deaf people today, deafness is an identity, not a defect or a curse imposed by a lesser god. (The play’s title comes from Tennyson’s poem “Idylls of the King.”) And for Sarah, if not Orin (who speaks and lip-reads), sign language is the unique expression of that identity.
At least on the page, “Children of a Lesser God” seems skeptical of Sarah’s conviction, painting her refusal to speak as a form of hysteria, with abuse and cold parenting in the background. (Her mother is played, implacably, by Kecia Lewis.)
But Ridloff’s blistering performance, like Phyllis Frelich’s in the original and Marlee Matlin’s in the 1986 movie, contradicts that skepticism. We see in front of us that ASL is not just a different language, but also a different way of thinking in which “veal” might be rendered as “cowbaby” and change the way you feel about it. (Alexandria Wailes is the sign language director.) Dialogue that seems banal in English — as the production’s supertitles frequently make plain — is as gorgeous and physical as sculpture when signed.
In any case, the story no longer reads, if it ever did, as simply the conflict between a smug hearing person and a defensive deaf one. Though the romance between Sarah and James is mutual, the antiquated assumptions behind it keep pushing the male-female battle into the foreground.
That would be fine if Sarah were as well armed to fight it as she is to fight the hegemony of the hearing. But Medoff allows neither Sarah nor James any insight into the way their behavior is conditioned by invented notions of gender, even once they marry. Sarah, otherwise a paragon of self-possession, frets over a runny quiche and coos over a blender. She proves herself as a wife by playing bridge. James sulks manfully, with Bach.
Leon’s color-conscious casting adds yet another level of contrast. (Ridloff is of mixed race; Jackson is white.) With no lines to address it, this extension of the theme of assumed privilege can only serve as a descant to the others, but sometimes that’s enough. When Sarah says she wants to have children — deaf children — and James blanches, the parallel to racism gives the moment a tantalizing frisson.
Unfortunately, little else does. When I saw this production’s tryout last summer at the Berkshire Theater Group, in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, I admired the leading actors but hoped the dull staging and plodding pace might be enhanced for Broadway. I still admire the leading actors and am even awe-struck by Jackson, whose television work, including “The Affair,” did not prepare me for the virtuosity of his simultaneous rendering of the role in spoken English and ASL while also interpreting for Ridloff.
But the uncharacteristically cheap-looking set by Derek McLane — just some tree trunks, chairs and portentous, empty door frames — looks even worse at Studio 54 and does nothing to help us contextualize the story. (Leon’s direction seems random.) Conversely, the choice of music contextualizes it too much, pinning down the late-'70s so bluntly (“Silly Love Songs”? Really?) as to undercut its seriousness and timeliness.
Then too, as Walter Kerr wrote in The New York Times of the 1980 production, the play falters badly in its second act, ginning up all sorts of spurious conflict to fill time. Unlikely jealousies, threats of firing by the school administration (Anthony Edwards is wasted as the head teacher) and an employment discrimination lawsuit pursued by Orin (John McGinty) all come to nothing, or very little.
Eventually you realize that Medoff simply did not have the wherewithal to dramatize the fundamental conflict any further because James is his hero but Sarah is right. The play, written when it was, can’t quite support that — not because of its deaf politics, but because of its sexual politics. Like James, Medoff insists on speaking for Sarah without fully accepting her independence.
In Ridloff’s performance, though, she answers him, and us, in the most profound way possible: silence.
Tickets: At Studio 54, Manhattan; 212-239-6200, childrenofalessergodbroadway.com. Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.