The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin by Steven Levenson: an analysis for production

Remember when greed was good? Me neither.

Sometimes our personal world disintegrates because of matters outside our control. Then there are those soul-wrenching times when our mantra should convert to “I am Vishnu.” Unfortunately, Tom the title character of Steven Levenson’s The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin, never meditates on this reality. The result is a selfish scorched earth campaign that, if it were not for his son’s postscript of reconciliation and redemption, nearly burns the closing curtain.

After reading my second Levenson play in a week, I would not currently recommend a festival dedicated to his work. The scars of the recession are too fresh. For my own sake, my next read must be comedy. Core Values was rife with comic moments and there moments of lightness in …Disappearance…. but alas our Tom destroys those too. Tom has recently left prison after his sentence for a Ponzi scheme that sunk his firm, his friends and his family. He shows up unannounced to seek shelter in another piece of wreckage of own making, his son’s desolate one-bedroom house purchased in the aftermath of divorce. At first, we pity Tom as he tries unsuccessfully to rebuild the life he once knew, first by asking. Then he demands. Then he extorts. The world has moved on without him. We grow to see that Tom was once benign, but has become malignant. The cancer must be excised.

James: Maybe the future was unwritten and anything that came after this came of its own volition and its own accord. Nothing was fated. Nothing was preordained. I’d like to believe that. I’d like to think that was true (p 64).

As in Core Values, the dialogue is realistic, ironic, (sometimes) understated, and powerful. The pace is lively, with the same short scenes and overlapping dialogue cadence. Strong language is used more often than in Core Values with increasing desperation and vitriol as the play and Tom careen toward ruin. All language should be considered in context. Most strong language does not occur until the latter third of the play when stakes are higher. Tom is the mouthpiece for 95 percent of it. If you change his language, your audience might forgive him:

“I could kick your ass (1):” I’m in better physical shape than you are.

“Goddamn (1):” expletive for emphasis

“Oh my God (2):” I’m surprised and angry

“Fucking life (1):” expletive for emphasis

“Fucking around (1):” speaking flippantly or casually

“Fucked up (2):” made a mess of things

“You haven’t done shit (1):” you haven’t done anything

“Fuck you (2):” I don’t need your money/ I’m insulted

“I don’t need this/your shit (2):” I don’t need/want to hear about problems

“Everybody’s shit (1):” everybody else’s problems

Some production requirements for…Disappearance…. may be daunting. The cast is 5: 3 male, 2 female. No characters are race-specific, but Tom’s immediate family would be more convincing if they were racially homogenous. There are no dialects. There are 5 locations requiring much creativity and very specific set dressing: 2 residential interiors (1 sparse, 1 elegant), a classroom interior, a college exterior, and the inside of a luxury SUV. The play is divided into 18 scenes without a suggested act break. My audiences need the break. My theatres need to sell cheesecake. Running time is 1 hour and 40 minutes (NYTimes). Costumes are contemporary; characters need to convincingly represent varying economic classes from lower to upper middle class. Fee: $100 per performance.

Playwright bio: https://www.playscripts.com/playwrights/bios/1152

The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin (had) its world premiere Off-Broadway at the Roundabout Theatre Company in June 2014.

Reviews:

“…smartly engrossing…unfolding the profound disorientation of people ruined by his decisions.”—Newsday.

“…the electricity in the room is palpable…Levenson’s dialogue is lean, dynamic and flows naturally.” —Time Out NY.

” …lays out a frank picture of an ordinary American family dealing with some clotted yet unhealed wounds of its own.” —TheaterMania.

“Harrowing…riveting theater.” —Bloomberg.com.

My considerations are mixed. The playwright is an American. The story ripped from recent headlines yet accessible to all who had a troubled family member (divorce, financial ruin, drugs, etc.) The dialogue and story are honest and raw (maybe too raw: see language above). It is implied that 2 characters routinely engage in extramarital relations. The setting is a smaller city large enough for Home Depot, Borders, Starbucks and a community college and close enough to a city that would house a financial firm large enough to make national news (but isn’t Portland, OR). It will need a crackerjack production team to execute the scene changes realistically, effectively and smoothly. Like many plays I review, The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin and Levenson despite his provenance are unrecognizable to my core audience.

http://www.dramatists.com/cgi-bin/db/single.asp?key=4808

Available for lending from Millikin University, Decatur, IL

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