In a Playbill interview, author Steven Levenson says that he was fascinated by the true story of a disgraced lawyer—a formerly respected guy, not one with a lot of personal power, a dot on the landscape, but influential enough to have led many clients down a financial well and shattered many lives—and was interested in telling a fictional story about a similar character; a story in which he would examine the guy’s attempts to redeem himself, get back in the game, once again be in the lives of the terribly hurt people left in his wake…and Levenson’s aim was to tell the story from his antihero’s perspective.
Only he hasn’t. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as it turns out, but The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin does indeed tell a different story.
In part this is simply because Levenson has chosen a naturalistic presentation; Durnin (David Morse) never does anything fancily theatrical like break the fourth wall to give us a novelistic glimpse into his inner life. No, in director Scott Ellis’s admirably streamlined, well-acted and efficient production, we just see him the way others see him. And this is what we see:
A guy who’s incredibly manipulative, and the most insidious kind of pathological liar, because he laces his falsehoods with enough truth to make them sound credible. More than this, he’s a guy with narcissistic personality disorder: any concessionary crack in your protective plaster becomes his handhold to rip in and create a chasm. You can see how he fooled so many people before his fall from grace, in the days before his charm and confidence were tainted by the tell of desperation, the taint of disgrace and psychic wounds that will never heal. For him, redemption isn’t redressing his wrongdoing, it’s reclaiming his legitimacy.
And that keeps him an enigma. Because he’s so adept at changing the ground rules on you, he has no solid ground of his own. He’s less a person than a pathology. Subsequently, the play’s perspective is almost entirely that of his victims, even in those scenes where Durnin—and always in anger—reveals some vulnerability. Because since we know there’s absolutely no sincerity at his core, only the chronic compulsion to seek acceptance and exploit human “assets,” we are constantly empathizing with those he targets, because their truth and potential victimization is transparent. And we root for them to fight him off, and the residual toxicity that seeps into life out of his presence. Those people involve his grown son James (Christopher Denham); his son-in-law Chris, who works at his old law firm (Rich Sommer); his ex-wife (Lisa Emery); and from a distance, his son’s new girlfriend Katie (Sarah Goldberg).
Thus, as a study of a very particular kind of toxic personality, one familiar, I daresay, to most people (be they victims or just observers) after a certain amount of life experience, The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin is both chillingly accurate—unusually accurate as far as dramatization goes, that accuracy magnified by David Morse’s uncompromising portrayal, in which charisma is used as a wedge—and compulsive viewing. And human and occasionally funny. If I have a qualm, it’s that Levenson cops out on his ending. Something structurally neat, satisfying and almost inevitable is tacitly set up; and then he never follows through. Perhaps because to do so would be more poetic that true-to-life, in a case-history context.
But that aside, you may find Tom Durnin worthwhile “company”…if only for an evening…and only from the safety of your seat…
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