GEORGE AND MARTHA DON’T comprise the only feuding family on stage this week. Stephen Belber’s appealingly angry and occasionally moving Don’t Go Gentle, which opened Sunday in an MCC Theater production at the Lucille Lortel, considers a distant father who, nearing death, tries to make up for alienating his own family by essentially adopting a new one. This does not endear him to his children.
Lawrence (Michael Cristofer) is a retired, widowed federal judge in Buffalo, a law-and-order man who terrorized his wife and had little time for his progeny. In retirement, and after surgery for cancer, he has volunteered to help those wronged by the legal system. (It “offends” him to see justice ill done, he says.) And so he meets Tanya (Angela Lewis), who received inadequate counsel on a misdemeanor drug charge and ended up in prison, and her bright but sometimes sullen son, Rasheed (Maxx Brawer). Lawrence’s own kids, the do-gooder Amelia (Jennifer Mudge) and Ben (David Wilson Barnes), who is divorced, in recovery and seeking enlightenment, initially applaud their father’s newfound magnanimity. The problems arise when Tanya and Rasheed move into the family home, and Amelia and Ben feel their dying father pushing them away.
Mr. Belber’s play gets somewhat less interesting as it moves into its latter half, when the more predictable machinations of family drama take precedence over the edgy, vivid characters and situations he created. But, as directed by Lucie Tiberghien, the fantastic cast—especially Mr. Cristofer and Ms. Lewis in the central roles—keep the characters grounded, real, and honest, and the dialogue stays sharp and sparkling. George and Martha at least have each other; Lawrence ends up all alone, and it’s a punch in the gut.
HARPER REGAN, WHICH OPENED a week ago at the Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater, is a weird, intriguing, gripping little play about yet another family in free-fall, this one British.
It opens with its best scene: an awkward, uncomfortable, spiky conversation between Harper (Mary McCann) and her boss (Jordan Lage), who is refusing to give her time off to go see her dying father. She goes anyway, but not before introducing us to her husband, Seth (Gareth Saxe), who clearly harbors some guilty secret; her daughter, Sarah (Madeleine Martin), a not particularly happy college student; and Tobias (Stephen Tyrone Williams), a school-age neighbor on whom Harper has a wildly inappropriate crush.
As the play progresses under the direction of Gene Taylor Upchurch, the scenery is slowly disassembled, each new setting appearing behind the previous ones. (Rachel Hauck designed the minimalist sets.) The characters’ stories are similarly revealed, sometimes horrifyingly. We learn Seth’s secret, we witness Harper’s indiscretions, and witness Sarah’s turmoil.
And yet by the end, somehow this family hasn’t fallen apart. It’s hanging on, and Seth has a fantasy of how things could be. Perhaps, Harper Regan seems to suggest, a shared fantasy is enough.