Lawrence, the widowed, conservative judge with a history of tough drug sentences, doesn't find his omnipotence as reliable when he's retired and sick. In Stephen Belber's fairly engrossing, if not quite believable family drama, Lawrence -- played with shambling majesty by Michael Cristofer -- defends a young black mother (Angela Lewis) pro bono on marijuana charges. Before long, she and her precocious teen son (Maxx Brawer) have moved into Lawrence's handsome wood-paneled home.

And meanwhile, his own kids -- the loyal but disappointing daughter (Jennifer Mudge) and the rootless son (David Wilson Barnes) with a heroin problem -- have good reason to feel replaced.

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Directed with a firm yet compassionate hand by Lucie Tiberghien, the characters have nuance. Belber's dialogue has bite. But we are never helped to understand how Lawrence became so extreme in the first place, much less to buy any of the many reasons for his conversions. Surely, he has always been too smart not to notice the race disparity in drug justice.

WHAT "Don't Go Gentle"

WHERE Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher St.

INFO $59-$89; 212-352-3101;

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BOTTOM LINE Fine acting, less probable plot