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The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Christopher Denham and David Morse
Photo by Joan Marcus.

If a rising tide does indeed lift all boats, there's no question what happens when the water level falls. In his play The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin, which just opened at the Laura Pels Theatre in a Roundabout Theatre Company production, Steven Levenson takes things to the next level: by examining what happens when someone opens the drain on the ocean entirely.

That someone is, of course, the title character. The 58-year-old Tom (David Morse) is described by his son James as a man who "got people to invest in this company he represented. Even though he knew that the company was... it wasn't actually worth anything. He thought he could get the stock price to go back up and eventually everyone would make their money back, butÂ… Everyone we knew—his family, my mom's family, my friends' parents—they all lost, pretty much, everything."

Levenson's play, which has been directed by Scott Ellis, is not about how Tom, James (Christopher Denham), or anyone related to them gets any part of it back. Oh, Tom makes a few overtures to his daughter's husband, Chris (Rich Sommer), who still works at the firm Tom defrauded, about coming back on board as a consultant, but it's pretty clear that no one really believes that will happen. Facing reality is the true focus of the evening.

That reality happens to fall in 2009, at the height of the global financial crisis, when Tom emerges from prison after five years. And no part of it is rosy. Tom is fielding dueling part-time jobs at Borders and Starbucks, and is forced to beg James to stay with him in his tiny house. (The set, which juxtaposes that cave-like dwelling against jagged views of a world crumbling outside its doors, is by Beowulf Boritt, and is eerily lit by Donald Holder.) James, who had to drop out of Yale when the family money evaporated because of the scandal, is divorced from his wife and now selling stethoscopes while he takes a creative writing class to engage his mind. Karen (Lisa Emery), the one-time Durnin matriarch, has landed with another wealthy man, but has no desire to ever see Tom again.

Christopher Denham and Sarah Goldberg
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Capable performers do help sell a lot of this, and they all effectively convey how beaten down everyone is. Morse's natural amiability helps you see the false charms that obviously so well served Tom at one point, as well as the anxiety that's been thrust upon him as he tries to rebuild his life. If Denham comes across as overly brittle at times, he projects all the painful hollowness you'd expect from a young man who's had his life ripped away from him. And Emery layers paper-thin acceptance on top of rage to create a Karen who, now as always, is only holding things together because she has no other choice.

Still, there are few other colors or complexities at work. Aside from a vague romantic subplot, in which James meets a young woman named Katie (a fine, though occasionally shrill, Sarah Goldberg) at his class and tangles her up in his imploding life, the generalized personal struggles are the sum total of The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin. The title promises how the tale will end up front, but as soon as it begins unfolding in earnest, you become unable to even doubt that it will end well.

Therein lies the severest problem with this professional, polished, and almost entirely remote play. Levenson has structured it as something of a modern tragedy in the Death of a Salesman mold, but there's no chance of a fall from grace for a man who exhibits no grace. As depicted, Tom is selfish and loathsome; he attempts to integrate himself into James's life a bit, and brings donuts to Chris's children twice, but throughout he evinces little more than the grabby neediness that sent him up the river in the first place.

Because the supporting threads of plot aren't that compelling either—it's difficult to believe, for example, from the snippets we hear of his writing that James has much hope of becoming a novelist—there's not too much to do other than sit back and observe a slow-motion death spiral for 100 minutes. That it doesn't quite become tedious speaks well of Levenson, who displays here a better facility for characterful and relatable dialogue than was the case with his 2008 play The Language of Trees for Roundabout Underground, and Ellis, who stops the pacing from ever getting as muddy as it so frequently seems it wants to be.

Ultimately, however, what inhibits The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin is how difficult it is to sympathize with Tom. You may feel for his family, but his woes are of his own creation, and he doesn't do remorse. In a country and time when many millions of people are still unemployed and hurting, there's only so much entertainment, satisfaction, and catharsis to derive from watching a story about a criminal who regrets nothing except getting caught.

The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin
Through August 25
Laura Pels Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, 111 West 46th Street between 6th and 7th Avenue
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