Jerry Mayer's latest play is filled with earnestness. Developer Jeff Bluestein (Loren Lester) and his wife, Susan (Jamie Luner), agonize over selling successful "Negro" biochemist Dr. Daniel Black (John Eric Bentley) their home in an upscale St. Louis suburb shortly after the JFK assassination. The playwright finds moments of humor and soul-searching, as the primarily Jewish denizens of the neighborhood take umbrage with the charming Dr. Black's plans to move in, claiming they are not racist but concerned with plummeting real estate values.
Mayer keeps the complications in Act 1 bubbling, including nosy relatives and community organizers and Bluestein's own concerns with his future business, despite his fondness for Black. Neither a penetrating drama about inherent racism nor an outrageous comedy, Black and Bluestein falls into a well-meaning but bumpy territory, a social comedy-drama that lacks real bite. Except for an admission from Black as to why he is so even-tempered, the work never gets inside the bones of these characters. There are charming turns of phrase for Black and Bluestein, especially when the former observes, "It won't be 'We shall overcome.' It'll be 'We shall come over.'"
But Mayer makes an odd choice, ending the play with an extended exchange between Bluestein relative Joe Grodsky (Stuart Pankin) and Black, rather than seeing the impact of Bluestein's final decision about the sale of his home on his ardently liberal wife and his less-evolved neighbors. Director Deborah Harmon pushes the performers toward broad sitcom-style turns, which does not serve the work. Bentley fares the best, especially when he lets his rage get the best of him. But by then the lessons about Jewish and black suffering have been troweled onto us, and it hardens, rather than softens, our hearts.
Presented by and at the Other Space at the Santa Monica Playhouse, 1211 Fourth St., Santa Monica. Sat. 3 p.m., Sun. 3 & 7 p.m. Mar. 17-Apr. 29. (323) 960-4418. www.santamonicaplayhouse.com.