News Column

TV Veteran is Drawn to Off-Broadway

July 21, 2013


"The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin" has an awkward title, but the performance at the play's core - one of the season's most intriguing -- is anything but.

It's delivered by David Morse, best-known for his TV work, especially the pioneering hospital drama "St. Elsewhere," but, in his periodic returns to the theater, a riveting stage actor.

In "Tom Durnin," which is at the Roundabout's off-Broadway Laura Pels Theatre through Aug. 25, he plays a once-successful lawyer who's been released from prison after serving five years for financial fraud. Durnin's been cut off by his family, which was ruined by his scheme.

"When I read the play, I thought, 'Should I do this?' and then, 'I have to do this,' " Morse said in a phone conversation last week. He added that he was influenced by the fact that there were few stage directions or author's notes in the script, which meant the director and actors would have more freedom in shaping the production.

"I have a real affection for off-Broadway," Morse said. "That's where I've done plays I've loved the most. It's where you often find the most challenging material."

"Tom Durnin," which was written by 29-year-old Steven Levenson, is an insightful drama about the push-pull emotions within families, focusing on the love and hate that Tom's grown son, James (Christopher Denham), feels toward his father.

What's most fascinating about it, what stimulates our curiosity, is the ambiguous figure of Tom.

Having gotten a subsistence job as a barista at a bookstore cafe, Tom smooth-talks James into letting him stay at James' home. He then schemes, and lies, to maneuver his way back into the lives of his daughter and former wife, who refuse to see him. He even pressures his son-in-law, also an attorney, to help him return to his old law firm.

We can perceive the attractive, forceful charmer Tom had been at his peak, but we wonder: What's his game now? What's he up to?

Morse doesn't give anything away. At a solidly built 6-foot-4, with piercing blue eyes, and a pleasant but guarded expression, he's a compelling stage presence. (He previously did memorable work as a wily pedophile in the 1997 off-Broadway production of "How I Learned to Drive" and, on Broadway in 2007, as a lonely, alcoholic Irishman in "The Seafarer.")

He makes us think in order to form our own sense of who Tom is.

Morse said his approach to the character was to see him as a man using every weapon at his disposal out of desperation.

"He's lost everything," said the 59-year-old actor. "He's been humbled and humiliated. Nobody's talked to him in five years. What he wants most is his family; he has a love for his family.

"He's facing incredibly difficult circumstances. He just got out of prison. Who's going to hire him? He's not a healed person; he's just desperate, unpredictable. At the core, he's really incredibly lonely."

Some observers have compared Tom to Bernard Madoff in his deceitfulness and the pain he caused his family, but Morse disagreed, suggesting that Tom hadn't set out to defraud, and suffered financially along with everyone else when the stock market turned on him.

The actor said he'd learned how diverse audience members' views of Tom were from talkbacks held at the theater after several performances.

"There was one woman who couldn't stop calling him despicable," said Morse. "And then she described her own experiences, and you could see where her feeling was coming from."

Creating a character so full of human complexity and mystery that each theater-goer perceives him from his or her own sense of life -- what more could an actor aim for?

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