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A CurtainUp Review
Donít Go Gentle

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

—Dylan Thomas
Don't Go Gentle
Michael Cristofer
(Photo credit: Joan Marcus)
If, like me, you've followed Stephen Belber's career, you certainly can't fault him for repeating himself or tackling interesting, worthy themes. He also knows his way around strong naturalistic dialogue that occasionally reaches lyrical heights.

Belber's most successful play, Tape, was made into a movie and presented twice Off-Broadway. But while his unfailingly well written interesting plays have been handsomely staged by distinguished off-Broadway companies and his Match made it to Broadway, none have attained that level of perfection one always hopes for, the theatrical equivalent of a perfect ten. Don't Go Gentle currently at MCC's Lortel Theater and directed by Lucie Tiberghien who also helmed by first and probably my favorite Belber play, Death of Frank, is no exception.

Lawrence (Michael Cristofer), the father faced with what Dylan Thomas so beautifully described as the not so gentle descent into the good night, is a 72-year-old retired Buffalo Judge. His battle with mortality in the form of stomach cancer bring him face to face with the fallout of both his successful career and domestic failures.

The career ups and downs: The startup as a prosecutor followed by 23 years as a judge. His record apparently ultra conservative with a reputation for handing out harsh sentences, his retirement hastened by health and a liberal chief judge sending fewer cases his way.

The domestic situation: A wife to whom he was devoted until she died at an unspecified time of an undefined illness. That devotion notwithstanding, the marriage was marred by her frustration at his forcing her to be a stay-at-home wife and mother instead of putting her law school degree to work. His relationship with his children is also not without problems. Son Ben (David Wilson Barnes), instead of living up to dad's idea of a meaningful existence has had long term depression and drug problems. Daughter Amelia (Jennifer Mudge) is devoted and has apparently fulfilled his expectations by marryng an up and coming lawyer and producing a grandson, but she hits the wine bottle a bit too heavily to be considered completely happy, and well-adjusted.

The scene is the ground floor of Lawrence's house, nicely detailed by set designer Robin Vest to reflect its owner's prosperity as well as his reluctance to spend a lot of money on modern appurtenances. But this is a five character play and the Judge's fraught relationship with his children and the effect of life threatening illness and retirement on his state of mind is dramatized through two African-American characters — Tanya (Angela Lewis), a thirty-ish black single mother, and her sixteen year-old son Rasheed (Maxx Brawer).

To help her father deal with his unaccustomed free time as well as his illness, being ill and without work, Amelia has persuaded him to sign to do some pro bono work from home and his first "case" is Tanya who, though not totally guilt free, has been wrongfully imprisoned as a result of bad legal advice which has resulted in her losing her job as a nurse tech in a hospital and forced her and Rasheed to live with her sister. While Lawrence is not about to condone her having smuggled marijuane to her former boyfriend, such misapplication of the law "offends him to his core." Enough so for him to want to take on the case.

What starts as a prickly interchange all around with Tanya suspicious about Lawrence's motives, and Lawrence unaccustomed to dealing with people like her and Rasheed other than from the bench, ends up as a complex new dynamic -- with him as much receiving as giving help. With Ben returning from a sojourn in India wanting to take care of his father and cementing their problematic relationship, the Tanya-Rasheed presence in Lawrence's life (and home) and the return of the prodigal son, lead to an ever more complex dynamic.

Since this is a quiet play propelled more by talk than action, it would be especially unfair to spoil any surprises with too many details about how all this plays out to take us to the plays most dramatic final confrontations. Suffice it to say, that this is a case of a smart man's search for some sort of redemption but doing so in ways that repeat his wrongheaded pattern of parental insensitivity, not to mention challenging audience credibility.

Don't Go Gentle raises some provocative racial and sociological issues though the the plot developments are rather implausible. Its hold on the audience, despite the credibility challenge and an essentially unsympathetic main character, iowes much to Michael Cristofer's deeply felt portrayal of the once powerful Judge trying to handle his last case with more empathy than some he presided over during his days on the bench. Mudge and Barnes are also excellent as the children for whom his persona as kinder and more tolerant than the father they know, is just another blow. Angela Lewis as the woman through whom he gains a new perspective on many of the people he once viewed through a less tolerant lens is also excellent, as is Maxx Brawer as her proud young son.

Lucie Tiberghien does a fine job of steering the many short scenes towards the inevitable though moving ending. No awkward blackouts, just a quick dimming of the lights to navigate from one moment, week or even month to the next. Tiberghien has indeed heeded the script's stage directions to make all scene changessmooth, quick and fluid, with as little disruption as possible.

Here's a list of links to Belber plays reviewed at Curtainup, including The Laramie Project for which he was an associate writer:
Death of Frank (1998)
The Laramie Project (2000) Tape (2002)
One Million Butterflies/Belber/Stephen(2003)
Match (2004)
A Small Melodramatic Stor (2004)
McReele (2005)
Fault Lines (2008)
Geometry Of Fire(2008)
Dusk Rings a Bell(2010)
Donít Go Gentle by Stephen Belber
Directed by Lucie Tiberghien
Cast: David Wilson Barnes (Ben), Maxx Brawer (Rasheed), Michael Cristofer (Judge Lawrence Drive), Angela Lewis (Tanya), Jennifer Mudge (Amelia).
Scenic Design: Robin Vest
Costume Design: Jenny Mannis
Lighting Design: Matthew Richards
Sound Design and Original Compositions: Fabian Obispo
Fight Director: J. David Brimmer
Stage Manager: Matthew Silver
Running Time: 90 minutes without intermission
MCC The Lucille Lortel Theatre 121 Christopher Street
From 9/27/12; opening 10/15/12; closing 11/04/12
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 10/13 press preview
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