The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin (Roundabout Theatre Company) is not, as the title suggests, a clever Irish play, but a flatly earnest American one. Competent and occasionally provocative, the drama could serve as playwright Steven Levenson’s spec script for some as-yet-unpiloted nighttime soap.
The setup sounds promising: Tom Durnin (David Morse) returns home after five years in prison, begging his son to let him stay with him for a while. James (Christopher Denham), his sourly reluctant son, relents, but refuses to divulge any information about his mother, who lives nearby. Turns out Tom’s unequivocal exile has not only to do with his prison sentence, but also his crime: a Ponzi scheme that devastated his family and friends’ savings and severely damaged their lives.
Meanwhile, James sulks about his job selling stethoscopes and has a super-awkward courtship (in the vein of Melissa James Gibson’s plays) with Katie (Sarah Goldberg), a flighty girl from his creative-writing class. The lies he tells Katie to conceal his shame of his prodigal father and his own recent divorce suggest that he has more in common with Tom than he would care to admit. Four-fifths of the way through, a pair of unlikely scenes take place in which Tom discovers that his son has given Katie money to pay her debts and that his ex-wife has given his son a big chunk of money to take time off and write. Tom comes to a rolling boil.
After Tom’s meltdown and James’s similar collapse over the misery he traces to his father’s crime, the play seems to recognize the impossibility of reconciliation or redemption for Tom and retreats. But it could’ve gone differently. For such a successful fraud, you’d think Tom would have irresistible charm. Morse lends Tom a Bill Clinton–esque patina, but most of the character’s lies are transparent and self-serving. He only ever tries to hector his way back into his old life, breaking everyone down rather than buttering them up. It’s a losing strategy, not one that resembles the flexible charisma of Durnin’s real-life huckster counterparts. No wonder he has to disappear. But unavoidable? Maybe not.