The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin

Steven Levenson’s new play offers a slightly unfocused yet poignant image of a recession-age American family taken down by white-collar crime.

Christopher Denham and David Morse in <i>The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin</i>.
Christopher Denham and David Morse in The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin.
(© Joan Marcus)

The National Bureau of Economic Research determined that the recent economic recession ended in June 2009. Of course, Robin Leach didn’t show up on every American’s doorstep with an oversized check on June 1, but this is the month that the proverbial bleeding had supposedly stopped. This is also the month during which Steven Levenson has set The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin, now running at Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre. Set against the timely backdrop of this tough economic environment, Levenson’s touching new play lays out a frank picture of an ordinary American family dealing with some clotted yet unhealed wounds of its own.

The central figure is Tom Durnin (David Morse), a smalltown Bernie Madoff who has just been released from prison after serving five years for constructing a fraudulent investment scheme that tore his family to shreds. Though his debt to society has been paid, several members of Tom’s family are still picking up the pieces of their lives: his son, James (Christopher Denham); his wife, Karen (an emotionally charged Lisa Emery); and his unseen daughter, Annie; along with her husband, Chris (Rich Sommer).

To Levenson’s credit, Tom is not by any means designed to be a Bernie Madoff political cartoon. Levenson’s script simply puts meat on the bones of these one-dimensional demons that we picture in our minds, making its characterization of Tom both well-developed and fair, though less than positive. In a rare opportunity, the play offers white-collar villains a chance to submit an uninterrupted plea for public sympathy. Tom, however, proves to be every inch the lying, manipulative bully that we imagine the suits featured on the 11-o’clock news to be. He comes across unsympathetically from the very first scene when he arrives at James’ house unannounced, and stays on his couch as an unwelcome houseguest through the month of June (a fact that James must also hide from his mother). Morse is wonderfully terrifying in this role, exuding glimmers of hypnotic charm while subtly communicating an inner landmine of rage that could explode at any moment.

His scenes with Rich Sommer, Tom’s son-in-law and former employee, are especially electric. You can feel Sommer wanting to jump out of his skin every time Tom takes the passenger seat in his car for their clandestine appointments at a JC Penny parking lot. Chris has clearly been unwillingly coerced into attending these secret meetings by Tom, who, still using the father-in-law/ex-boss trump cards, recruits Chris as his mole to help him reconnect with his estranged family members as well as his old law firm.

Denham, meanwhile, presents no trace of the former, presumably ambitious student that they say he once was. James has become a socially awkward 26-year-old man (though the number of hoodies in his wardrobe, selected by costume designer Jeff Mahshie, suggests an emotionally stunted boy). He walks through life on eggshells and speaks in hesitant fragments, truncated by a series of “um”s and “uh”s. He lives in a cluttered one-floor house (designed down to the empty soda bottle on the night stand by Beowulf Boritt) and wastes his life selling stethoscopes, convincing himself that he is lucky to even have a job considering the state of the economy. Even his love interest, Katie — played by Sarah Goldberg (who offers refreshing comic relief) — could be interpreted as a sign of his newfound mediocrity.

While Levenson’s script contains a rather vague plot arc, it puts a magnifying glass up to the experience of an American family and allows us to draw our own conclusions about what we see. For a show that is not particularly user-friendly, director Scott Ellis deserves a great deal of credit for keeping it engaging for the entire hour and 40 minutes. As Tom and James’ relationship comes to a head, the free-form play finally comes into focus and proves worth the wait. It concludes on the highest note of the evening, with Denham delivering a gorgeous monologue coupled with Ellis’ beautiful staging, leaving the audience with an image sure to induce chills for days.

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