By Adam Markovitz
Updated October 16, 2012 at 04:00 AM EDT
Joan Marcus

In Stephen Belber’s new Off Broadway drama Don’t Go Gentle, playing through Nov. 4 at Off Broadway’s Lucille Lortel Theatre, Lawrence (Michael Cristofer), a white, retired judge, grudgingly takes on a pro-bono case involving an African American woman, Tanya (Angela Lewis), and her teenage son, Rasheed (Maxx Brawer). After a few meetings, he’s so impressed by their mettle and moved by their poverty that he invites them to live in his home, much to the confusion of his own children, a recently rehabbed 38-year-old son, Ben (David Wilson Barnes), and a brittle, married daughter, Amelia (Jennifer Mudge). Family bonds are tested. Racial stereotypes are spelled out, explored, and debunked. To quote one of the show’s own characters, it all sounds a bit like ‘an episode of Diff’erent f—ing Stokes.’

But the greatest pleasure of Don’t Go Gentle is how well Belber avoids the easy morals and broad-stroke emotions of a sitcom. Lawrence, a widower, is driven by a host of conflicting needs that don’t fit into easy arcs. He wants to make amends for a past spent doling out harsh rulings from his bench. He wants to be a loving father, especially after a recent battle with stomach cancer, but he worries that he’s already spoiled his grown children by judging them too lightly. When he invites Tanya and Rasheed to move in, he’s trying to fix a problem he can’t even identify himself, some muddled mix of loneliness, guilt, and fear of death. They accept his offer for reasons left equally grey: need, curiosity, vindication.

The play’s single act, lasting just 90 minutes, threads all these strands through a straightforward storyline that never even leaves Lawrence’s living room. Tanya and Rasheed move in, and that’s about it. Ben, recently back from a holistic retreat in Mysore, and Amelia, still living nearby, try to wrap their heads around their father’s decision. They all talk and argue and drink lots of soda. The drama of the situation, even when heightened by Ben’s slippery grip on sobriety, never hits the kind of peak that theatergoers are conditioned to expect; one of the play’s most charged scenes climaxes in a chaste kiss on the head.

That’s not to say that the show doesn’t resonate. It does, gently, thanks to Belber’s script, which never trades on clichés, and the direction of Lucie Tiberghien, who guides her cast to build emotion by holding it back. Cristofer, who delivers his lines in wheezy New York-ese, pulls off the masterful feat of making Lawrence equal parts proud and deflated, both king and jester of his own court. Wilson Barnes, with a hangdog sneer that reminds you of a younger Kevin Spacey, finds a fresh, unmannered take on the familiar paces of addiction. The fact that the play ends with just a mild catharsis doesn’t lessen any of their accomplishments. It only makes you wish that instead of being a one act, this was merely the first. B+