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Why Do We Like This Terrible Man? Playwright Steven Levenson pushes moral buttons at the Roundabout

By RAVEN SNOOK

Key moments in Steven Levenson's new play The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin---now at the Roundabout at the Laura Pels Theatre---take place offstage. That's fitting, since the show deals with the lingering effects of the financial meltdown of 2008. Many people continue to struggle in statistical silence, out of sight, just like James Durnin (Christopher Denham), an underemployed writer whose life is turned upside down when his ex-con father arrives at his door.

Tom (David Morse), James' disbarred lawyer dad, is directly responsible for his son's money woes, since he was convicted of fraud that ruined his family and all of their friends.

Despite his unethical past and his manipulative nature, however, it's hard to hate Tom outright. That's partly because he's played by Morse, who has an innate likability, but mostly it's because Levenson makes it clear that, in a way, Tom is a victim, too.

"Although I was fascinated by a lot of the people involved in the financial crisis, I didn't find Bernie Madoff that interesting," Levenson says. "I wanted to write about one of the smaller players you didn't read about in the papers, a guy who deluded himself and others for so long. The play isn't really about what happened. It's about forgiveness and making amends, something that still isn't a topic of conversation when you talk about the collapse. Not that Tom ever apologizes. He just feels entitled to get his life back."

Unsurprisingly, Tom's family isn't on board. His ex-coworker/son-in-law Chris (Rich Sommer) reluctantly meets with him out of loyalty. When Tom finally tracks down his ex-wife Karen (Lisa Emery), she gives him what for, and his daughter won't even see him. Only James is willing to let him in---both figuratively and literally as his roommate. 

"I didn't want the play to have clear-cut villains or heroes," Levenson says. "There are moments when the audience has sympathy for Tom and others when their sympathy for the son wavers. Both Tom and James tell lies, and they all start to add up. It's fun to play with the audience's expectations and what they know."

In a pivotal scene, Tom unwittingly reveals a few of his son's deceptions to James' girlfriend, but we don't see the immediate consequences of the revelations.

"In the very first draft, that scene did continue," Levenson says.  "But then I decided that their confrontation needed to take place later. I wanted it to feel like there had been a few days of [James' girlfriend] not answering the phone and him sitting in his room and stewing. James finally realizes the only way to make it right is to tell her everything. I want that moment when he decides to come clean to be something we don't see."

Levenson has enjoyed incredible success for a playwright just under 30, with commissions from Roundabout, Lincoln Center, and MCC, plus a recent, well-reviewed run of <i>Core Values</i> at Ars Nova, which also deals with a "businessman who no longer seems to have a place in the world."


However, Levenson was studying to be an actor at Brown University until a playwriting class with Pulitzer Prize-winner Paula Vogel set him on a new course. "At the end of the class, she took every student out individually for coffee to talk about the work," he remembers. "I was about to graduate, and I was terrified, and she told me if this was something that I wanted to do, she thought I could make a career of it. I credit that as the thing that kept me going when I moved to NYC."

But his former vocation still comes in handy. While he admits that he does steal a bit from real life---Levenson's father is a lawyer, and the dad of a high school friend was put away for fraud---his performing background is what helps him flesh out characters. "Beyond inspiration, writing is about transporting yourself into somebody else's skin," he says. "That's where the actor in me comes out. I always feel like I'm inhabiting these roles in a way."

 

Raven Snook writes about theatre for Time Out New York and has contributed arts and entertainment articles to The Village Voice, the New York Post, TV Guide, and others

Photo by Joan Marcus