Steven Levenson raises some Big Issues in “The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin.” We’re talking about weighty matters like crime and punishment, guilt and restitution, and that old favorite — forgiveness of sins. Trouble is, these subjects aren’t hashed out until the final moments of the play, a gloomy domestic drama about a man who paid his criminal debt to society and is fighting to get his old life back. That leaves a lot of dead time for characters to glower at one another and avoid talking about those Big Issues bugging them.
It’s hard to focus on anyone else whenever David Morse is on stage. Although the thesp (“The Seafarer,” “St. Elsewhere”) is tall and physically imposing, it’s the fierce look in his eye that nails you. In two-character scenes, he invades the other person’s space and stares them down, wears them down, tears them down until he gets his way with them. He rarely raises his voice, but there’s something unpredictable about this soft-spoken man, a hint of violence, that makes him frightening.
That’s killer casting for the role of Tom Durnin, who has just done five years in prison (for some crime left undefined until late in the play) and is determined, even desperate, to get his old life back. The first person Tom goes after is his son, James, a broken-spirited shadow of a man who is so cowed by his overbearing dad that Christopher Denham (a fine actor, constrained by the role) is forced to deliver many of his lines to his own shoes. The man is so beaten down that he shows some life only in the company of Katie Nicholson (Sarah Goldberg), a pathologically shy classmate at the local community college. Katie is indeed quirky, but Goldberg smartly lightens up on her by finding a spark of comedy to play.
James despises his father and keeps trying to show him the door. But he’s no match for his old man, who shoulders his way into James’s modest house in a half-abandoned housing development in some godforsaken suburb. The desolation of the region is lightly but firmly suggested by Beowulf Boritt’s unforgiving set design, and appropriately lighted by Donald Holder in dark, depressing color tones.
Once Tom has pitched his tent in his son’s living room, he goes after his daughter’s husband, Chris (Rich Sommer of “Mad Men”), a junior partner in his father-in-law’s former law firm. Like James, the lily-livered Chris doesn’t stand a chance against Tom, who nags and pleads and bullies and threatens until Chris caves in and gives him what he demands — a chance at his old job and, more problematical, the address of his estranged wife.
Everyone is intimidated by Tom, but Lisa Emery, as his former wife, puts a physical face on her fears. Alone in her apartment, she cringes in a living room chair while Tom, bulking over her, comes closer and closer as his demands become more insistent. To this admirable thesp’s credit, she keeps her voice level and her head high, but every bone in her body seems to shrink away in fear.
The nature of Tom’s crime, which is part of the big reveal, lends itself to all those Big Issues that Levenson, whose earlier play “The Language of Trees” also bowed at the Roundabout, eventually allows his tongue-tied characters to address. But there’s not much time left to debate the question of whether some crimes are simply unforgivable. Or whether families are morally obliged to remain loyal to their own. Or how someone can make restitution for his sins if he doesn’t acknowledge them.
All interesting questions, but best left for another play.