There’s something that seems innately decent about actor David Morse — best-known to TV viewers for his roles on St. Elsewhere and Treme, and for portraying George Washington in the John Adams mini-series on HBO – which may be why he was so effective as the (somewhat) sympathetic child molester in Paula Vogel’s powerful and nuanced play “How I Learned To Drive.”
Director Scott Ellis employs Morse in an attempt to induce similar dissonance in Steven Levenson’s new play, “The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin,” with less success.
Morse portrays Tom, a once-affluent, now disbarred lawyer who has just been released from prison, where he served five years for what we eventually learn is a Bernie Madoff-like scam on a much smaller scale, betraying his friends and acquaintances, and turning his family into pariahs.
He now shows up at the house of his son James (the superb Christopher Denham), full of small talk.
“What do you want?” his son asks coldly. Tom asks for money. James says he doesn’t have any. Then Tom asks James whether he can crash at his place. James says no. Tom asks in a different way.
“Please don’t make me keep repeating myself Dad.”
“So then say yes.”
“Just a month.”
James relents, and we see Tom trying various strategies to get what he wants from his son-in-law Chris (Rich Sommer, who plays Harry Crane on “Mad Men”), including a form of blackmail, and his ex-wife Karen (Lisa Emery). He wants life back the way it was, and his insistence that this is possible starts to seem delusional. The title “The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin” sums up (and telescopes) the futility of Tom’s efforts. But the way things were, we begin to see, was only good for him, and not for those around him, and his motives seem less noble than his stated aim of family reparations. We get a glimpse of his uncontrollable manipulativeness when he meets Katie (Sarah Goldberg) the girl that James has started tentatively to date.
Levenson shows an extraordinary ear for dialogue, especially in the awkward scenes between James and Katie. The play takes a clear-eyed view of the hard times that (despite the business page reports to the contrary) continues to cause ordinary people much pain and displacement. There are even one or two insights into the psychological damage that father has caused son. The first-rate cast does what it can to engage the audience in the playwright’s material.
But, though the playwright tries to stretch out the information, most theatergoers will pick up quickly on the essential character trait of both father and son, and realize how unreliable and unlikeable they are, each in his own way. From then on, the play doesn’t go anywhere surprising. Morse’s character is not especially complicated, and he’s too transparent to be an intriguing villain; he pities himself, but there’s no room for us to pity him. Everybody around him knows him better than he seems to know himself, including the audience.
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The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin
At the Laura Pels Theater, Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theater, 111 West 46th Street
By Steven Levenson; directed by Scott Ellis; sets by Beowulf Boritt; costumes by Jeff Mahshie; lighting by Donald Holder; music and sound by Obadiah Eaves
Cast: Christopher Denham (James Durnin), Lisa Emery (Karen Brown-Canedy), Sarah Goldberg (Katie Nicholson), David Morse (Tom Durnin) and Rich Sommer (Chris Wyatt).
Running time: one hour, 40 minutes without an intermission
“The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin” is scheduled to run through August 25.