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The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin
Not quite as far-reaching or as specific as the fraudulent Ponzi-inspired financial fraud infamously perpetrated by Bernard Madoff, the white-collar crime committed by Tom Durnin (David Morse), a middle-aged, successful lawyer, is rooted in the same misguided set of get-rich-quick ethics.
The time-frame of the play is exactly the year — 2009 — that Madoff pleaded guilty to eleven federal felonies.
Sent to jail for five years, Durnin has had time to plan his comeback and presumably his turnaround. But what does that mean to those whose lives he has ruined and been left permanently scarred, devastatingly humiliated and understandably unforgiving.
It is a few of those lives with whom we are involved in Steven Levenson's terrific play that focuses on Durnin's return, his agenda and its consequences. The question: Is there any way for him to honestly — that's the key word — find a way back into the lives, specifically those of his immediate family, who might prefer to never see him again.
Levenson's earlier play The Language of Trees earned enthusiastic reviews when it premiered in 2010 as part of the Roundabout Underground Series. In this world premiere he again demonstrates that his dramatic imagination has devised a gripping and emotionally involving, essentially topical story that is not only well-crafted but also consistently engrossing.
The play is directed with a firm grip on the essentials by Scott Ellis. The setting is described as the American "exburgs," otherwise known as a low-rent neighborhood. Among its various locations (as designed to revolve into view impressively by Beowulf Boritt) is the living room of a "humble one-floor house" where the play begins and where Tom Durnin's son James (Christopher Denham) has resided since leaving Yale in disgrace from the notoriety and without graduating.
An emotional wreck since his father's imprisonment, James has not weathered well the disintegration of his own short marriage and subsequent divorce, nor does he see a clear path out of his no-future job selling medical supplies. He does like writing and the Community College creative writing workshop classes he attends. There he has meets Katie (Sarah Goldberg), an unexceptional but sweet and pretty young woman with whom he is tentatively led into a relationship. That he is inclined to lie to her about his past and especially about his father whom he has reluctantly allowed to temporarily stay with him, leads to an inevitable breach in trust.
Denham gives a compelling performance as the conflicted James, mainly characterized by his inability to confront and cope with the disabling load of accumulated resentment he is harboring. Goldberg wins our hearts as the naíve and needy Katie who may just not be up to dealing (as she puts it) with James' "baggage." Another fine performance is given by Rich Sommer"(Mad Men fans will enjoy chance to see him "live") who is convincing as the apprehensively conflicted son-in-law and partner in the firm where Tom had been employed, and justifiably tormented as he considers whether he will go out on a limb for a man despised not only by the firm but by his own daughter.
But it is Morse, who like the memorably deplorable character he created in Paula Vogel's How I Learned to Drive, is embedded in another role in which his behavior and motivations are as stunningly self-deceptive as they are to him justifiable. Imposing, tough, and persuasive, Morse could sell us the proverbial Brooklyn Bridge, but can he sell his ex-wife Karen (Lisa Emery) on his redemption? In her two scenes, Emery, one of our finest stage actresses, gives us a clear and impassioned image of a valiant, but rage-consumed woman who has managed to turn her life around. But what if turning your life around means starting from a point where you might have to literally begin again is as much of a challenge for Tom as it will be for James.
Moving along briskly for nearly two hours without an intermission, The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin is the first palpably strong drama of the new season. I hope that it doesn't unavoidably disappear from the memory of critics come next spring and awards time.