There’s no getting around it: Joshua Jackson is a bad actor. As James Leeds, the dashing new speech teacher at a school for the deaf, he spends most of Children of a Lesser God signing and interpreting the signs of others. This masks a tendency to saw the air, even when the ASL doesn’t call for it, but it does nothing to hide his teleprompter delivery. Except he’s not reading from a teleprompter, and we know this because the supertitles—installed to make the production more accessible—frequently only approximate what he is saying. It’s inexplicable to me that a teen heartthrob over a decade past his sell-by date has landed a role on Broadway; still, at the very least, I’d expect him to learn his lines.
Mark Medoff’s play, about James’ romance with his student, Sarah Norman (Lauren Ridloff), has come under criticism for its gender politics: James imposes his view of normality and functionality onto Sarah, who stubbornly insists her deafness and refusal to speak are not disabilities but differences. In The New York Times, Jesse Green writes, “Mr. Medoff simply did not have the wherewithal to dramatize the fundamental conflict any further because James is his hero but Sarah is right.” I’m not sure I agree; it is possible that these power dynamics are central to the drama rather than the product of the playwright’s misogyny. In any case, Ms. Ridloff is so compelling onstage that it’s difficult to perceive Sarah as bullied or overpowered by this walking monotone, despite the patently icky nature of their relationship.
More problematic is the tedious and clunky writing that has James repeating everything Sarah says out loud, even when the two are alone. After all, the supertitles could easily make this redundant, introducing a semblance of naturalism into their scenes of domesticity. And isn’t the insistence on speaking Sarah’s dialogue out loud an implicit endorsement of James’ position? Ostensibly about deafness, Children of a Lesser God ultimately defers to the demands of the hearing world.