At the start of Steven Levenson’s new Off Broadway play The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin, the just-sprung-from-prison title character (David Morse) pleads with his adult son, James (Christopher Denham) for a place to stay: ”You lived in my house for eighteen years, I’m asking you for one month.”
Levenson’s wheel-spinner of a family drama about a Bernie Madoff-like investor/scam artist starts promisingly. We see both the seeds of a fractured father-son dynamic — Tom is sympathetic yet cunning, James is elusive and withdrawn — as well as the pair’s commonality (both actors speak in the same staccato tones). Under Scott Ellis’ unfussy direction, Morse and Denham convey a laconic ease as their characters, now roommates, juggle their unhappy work lives and Tom’s increasing need to be part of things no matter what the emotional cost.
But then there’s the unwelcome arrival of new characters: Karen (Lisa Emery), Tom’s spurned ex-wife now living in luxury, Chris (Mad Men’s Rich Sommer), the put-upon son-in-law who was a colleague of Tom’s when things turned sour, and in a bit of too easy meet-cute lightness, a sweet, dingbatty classmate of Chris (Sarah Goldberg, leaning too firmly on Judy Holliday mannerisms) who becomes a confidante and love interest for James.
Despite the performers’ best efforts, you can never shake the feeling that these additional characters seem to exist solely to draw out the play’s ever-increasing number of contrivances. (For instance, why is so much made of Tom’s attempts to get his ex-wife’s phone number when he just shows up at her doorstep scenes later?)
Morse and Denham, both returning to the New York stage after lengthy hiatuses, are rock solid in the principal roles. Morse displays a palpable, innate sadness in what could have been a real pill of a character. The two manage to keep the action grounded even as the play veers into rote sins-of-the-father melodrama. By the end of the play, it’s clear that Tom Durnin is no Willy Loman. Attention only sort of needs to be paid. B-