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Don't Go Gentle

(Review by Tulis McCall)

There are heady conversations going on about town - Don't Go Gentle offers a fistful. The themes here are mythic and bold, and boil down to family vs. friend. Who is who and how come we end up being related to people we would not pick as friends? How do we honor or damage those family relationships, and how come that no matter what we do we can never not be related.

Lawrence (Michael Christofer) is a widower in the middle of his second bout with cancer. He is looking at his life with some fresh eyes and he is beholding a new vista. In the center of that vista are Tanya (Angela Lewis) and her 16.5 year old son Rasheed (Maxx Brawer). Being a retired judge, Ben is qualified to take on cases of people who were treated unfairly by the system. Tanya tried to smuggle marijuana to her boyfriend who was in jail. The amount of dope was so small it should have been charged as a misdemeanor. She was instead charges with a felony and lost her home and her job as a result.

In Tanya, Lawrence finds something that his children don't provide. Ben (David Wilson Barnes) is a 38-year-old recovering heroin addict, divorced and jobless. He has taken up more than his share of Lawrence's money and attention. As a matter of fact, years ago when Lawrence was throwing the book and whatever else he could find at people like Tanya, he was also busy calling in favors right and left to keep Ben out of jail.

Amelia is the good child. She has a successful marriage and children, and spends a part of each day caring for her father. In return she gets little, but this does not stop her from continuing to give.

Why Lawrence is estranged from his children is not explained in this play, and that is one of its odd strengths. Lawrence is who he is, and who his children are doesn't really seem to matter to him. Who do matter are Tanya and Rasheed. As their circumstances become bleaker, Lawrence takes on an increasingly active role in their lives. Eventually his caretaking interferes with the fragile relationships he has with his children. There are some serious sparks because this is all played out with the gloves off.

This is a messy family who has lost the oars to their little boat. They look to one another for help and are usually met with a lit match and a rag soaked in gasoline. Stephen Belber's text is sparse and to the point. Barnes, Lewis and Mudge in particular have a firm handle on their characters and the text. Watching Mudge witness the family men arguing is a lesson in acting. Brawer is able to find some solid moments in an uneven young character. Less satisfying is Christofer who seems to be giving us the same character that he portrayed in The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide... at the Public. His performance borders on the melodramatic one too many times.

Lucy Tiberghien's direction is a puzzle. She makes little use of the stage or the sprawling set, and confines her actors into two small areas for 90% of the play. Yes, yes I know the characters are confined, but we shouldn't be aware that the actors look cramped should we?

Still the play comes through. It is not pitch perfect, but I don't believe that was Stephen Belber's intent. He has opened up a big old can of worms and let everyone color outside the lines. In the end, though it appears that many doors have closed, and many people walk out that front door let me tell you, Belber keeps all the latches unlocked.

This was a play where I left the theatre wondering what was going to happen to the collection of folks in the next chapter. Friends to family, family to friends - once you're in, you're in. In some odd way, Belber reminds us that amid the sturm and drang, what we are all trying to do is go gentle with one another and ourselves. We just have a hard time making it look that way.

"For the most part chugs along as a familiar tale of angst, dysfunction and guilt."
Charles Isherwood for New York Times

"A small but resonant drama."
Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News

"If you can suspend disbelief, this new MCC production delivers an absorbing, well-crafted story."
Elisabeth Vincentelli for New York Post

"First-Rate Acting Redeems the Schematic 'Don't Go Gentle'"
Elisabeth Vincentelli for New York Post

"Begins promisingly.... But as Belber's schematic examination of white guilt, the emotional scars of childhood, and the regrets of old age moves forward, the play only occasionally rises to similar heights. Nevertheless, the performances ... allow the production to carry a palpable albeit modest emotional impact."
Andy Propst for Back Stage

"Raises some provocative and disturbing issues, which makes it thoroughly watchable."
Robert Feldberg for The Record

"The playwright mixes some interesting angles into his straightforward 90-minute drama."
Michael Sommers for Newsroom Jersey

"How refreshing -- a dysfunctional family drama in which you actually give a damn who gets written out of the will.'
Marilyn Stasio for Variety

External links to full reviews from popular press...

New York Times - New York Daily News - New York Post - Back Stage - The Record - Newsroom Jersey - Variety

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