Sunday, September 1, 2013

Theater Review: ‘Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin,' From the Roundabout Theatre

Is the concept of shame dead in the U.S.? In politics, the answer is emphatically yes, as Mark Sanford, Anthony Weiner and Eliot Spitzer have dared to run for office again. When it comes to financial chicanery, however, the odor of disgrace still lingers, at least judging from Woody Allen’s new film, Blue Jasmine, and  The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin, which closed a week ago at the Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre.

As I watched Steven Levenson’s drama, the comparison that came to mind was with another work that viewed an economic calamity through the lens of a family: Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Though Miller’s work does not mention the Great Depression, the playwright noted in his memoir Time Bends years later of the devastation wrought on his father by the Great Depression. This time, Levenson has sought to examine the collateral damage wrought by the Great Financial Crisis of 2008.

Yet unlike Miller, Levenson never reaches—or, to be fair to him, tries to attain—the level of grand tragedy.  Moreover, though Miller’s Willy Loman is essentially a victim, the father figure in Tom Durnin is a victimizer—a sociopath who screams about wanting his life back, but heedless of the damage he has wreaked on family and friends.

It took a while for this to unfold, despite the lack of an intermission and a running time of only an hour and 40 minutes. Early on, Levenson was slow to reveal the full dimensions of his characters’ emptiness, so the pace felt more leisurely than it had to be.

The confined space of the Laura Pels Theatre might have led some in the audience to think initially that the plot concerns only a confined group of people, but it soon became apparent that the play’s setting was a stand-in for post-crash America. “The prices have pretty much tanked” …,” explains twentysomething James Durnin. “Most of the other houses are empty. It’s like a ghost town, the whole subdivision.”

Into James’ cluttered apartment comes his father Tom, asking for a place to stay while he attempts to re-establish himself with a barista job at Borders. (The play is set in 2009, before the bookstore chain liquidated, so we already know how long that job lasted.) James’ muffled, sullen, contingent agreement signals not merely an estrangement between father and son, but one of catastrophic proportions.

It turns out that Tom, in his former job as a high-powered corporate lawyer, had dragged down his family and friends into a Madoff-like Ponzi scheme. After a jail term for the notorious crime, Tom wants desperately to “get my life back.”

Easier said than done, particularly with so many people victimized and with a sociopath with so little recognition of the damage he caused. Director Scott Ellis, normally sure-handed with many Roundabout productions over the years (e.g., The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Harvey, Twelve Angry Men), let the pace slacken in this show and permitted at least one poor acting choice, but he had, in David Morse, an actor of dominating stage presence and creative courage, unafraid to follow his character to some truly dark places. 

Morse opted not to pursue audience sympathy at the expense of finding the key to his character, a reprobate given to browbeating James about his lack of a good job and loss of his marriage (both stemming from the fallout from Tom’s own crime, of course), blackmailing a son-in-law, and badgering his ex-wife for another chance. The play was all the better for it for his daring.

In the supporting cast, Lisa Emery delivered a scalding performance as Tom’s ex-wife Karen, giving vent, late in the show, to the rage the audience has been feeling. Mad Men’s Rich Sommer ably conveyed the haplessness and rising anger of Chris, the legally compromised son-in-law left in Tom’s firm. In James, Christopher Denham managed perhaps the most difficult transition of any character. The one acting misfire is Sarah Goldberg’s jittery, annoyingly sing-song Katie, whose budding relationship with James comes under a severe test with the presence of Tom.

At 27 years old, Levenson is still young enough to deliver eventually on the promise of this uneven but frequently quite well-done piece.

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