Like father, like son? That’s a viable take-away from “The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin” at the Laura Pels Theatre, at least at first blush. After all, both title character Tom (David Morse) and son James (Christopher Denham) churn out lies like modern-day Don Drapers.
But Tom’s falsehoods are calculated for personal gain. Five years ago, he artificially propped up a worthless company he represented by getting friends and family to invest in it, causing them to lose everything. Now, fresh out of jail, he blackmails his son-in-law (Rich Sommer) with seeming fabrications to gain information and influence. Son James’s mendacity is more benign. He just wants to avoid embarrassment and confrontation, so he’s less than candid with his fledgling girlfriend (Sarah Goldberg) and his mother (Lisa Emery) about Tom’s whereabouts and health. They’re still lies, of course, but he’s not really hurting anyone.
Playwright Steven Levenson takes his time distinguishing the Durnin men, and that’s part of the beauty of the piece. At first, Tom seems like the victim. The poor guy just got out of jail, and his family shuns him. James takes him in, but barely talks to him. But little by little we see Tom for the master manipulator he is. And we see that while James spent no actual hard time in the slammer, he’s been in a prison of his own for the last few years.
The set (Beowulf Boritt), direction (Scott Ellis) and cast all have an unassuming quality, allowing the power of the piece to creep up on you. And “creep” is perfectly fitting for Tom, though Morse skillfully peels back layers in this role to reveal the reasons why.