Theres much to recommend in George Stevens Jr.s generic biodrama about the legendary African-American Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, whose career as an NAACP attorney culminated in successfully arguing before the U.S. Supreme Court that South Carolinas separate but equal defense of racial segregation was unconstitutional. The play, if one dares to call it that, is at its best during those trial scenes in which the events only actor, Laurence Fishburne reprising his Broadway appearance, plays out scenes from the series of trials as both both Marshall and his opponent, John W. Davis. Unfortunately, this courtroom drama, which constitutes a fleeting if climactic segment of the piece, is the only drama. The rest is a lecture by Marshall at Howard University in which, for little apparent reason other than his acceptance of a lecture fee, he reflects on his life and career. Fishburne portrays him as both folksy and crusty, with nice physical detail as the man ages, but this is all a bit like Hal Holbrook portraying Mark Twain: completely dependent on wit, whimsy and legend, while bypassing so much of the human being underneath. He refers to his difficult character, but that darker side has no reason or context to show itself, and that would be a show. What we get is a full dose of Marshalls courage and rectitude, in which were challenged to submit to his thesis that segregation, lynchings and bigotry in general are really bad things, and that theyre not even constitutional. Okay, Ill keep that in mind. What saves Leonard Foglias production from tedium is the history lesson itself, how in economic downturns we, like most countries, turn on the spigot of racial hatred, which spews over so many laws that have tried to contain it. Elaine J. McCarthys projection designs are a cinematic yet effective way to bring the last century into our laps. Its an oddity but true here that an idea for a play can be more powerful than the play itself. Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 3 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m.; through Aug. 8. (310) 208-5454.
Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 3 & 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 & 7 p.m. Starts: July 7. Continues through Aug. 8, 2010
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