Hard Times, According to Steven Levenson: In the Playwright’s Newest Work, David Morse Is a White-Collar Criminal Adjusting After Jail

Just don’t mistake him for Bernie Madoff

The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin

Christopher Denham and David Morse in ‘The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin.’ (Photo by Joan Marcus)

“I always find, in writing, it’s hard to convince myself what I’m doing is real,” said playwright Steven Levenson, musing on his profession. “It usually takes me until the first rehearsal to believe these characters are not just something still in my head.” For this reason, it’s hard for him to get used to referring to his plays by their titles. His new one, The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin, which premieres June 27 at Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theater, was initially called “My Roundabout Play.” “It feels so embarrassing to say the names of plays when they’re early,” he said. “Like, what if people realize it’s just something I made up?”

Mr. Levenson, 29, has been making a name for himself Off Broadway with his Core Values, a plaintive little comedy at Ars Nova; the new play pushes him to the next level, in terms of visibility. Six-foot-four David Morse stars as the incredible shrinking Tom Durnin, a hot-shot 57-year-old attorney who, diminished by five years in prison for financial misconduct, has returned to a pretty charred home front—one closed door after another. The family he disgraced and abandoned has not only, as they say, “moved on,” but has actively built up walls to keep him out.

The play’s action takes place in 2009, and if all of this screams Bernie Madoff, Mr. Levenson’s aim is emphatically lower than that. “What I like about this character,” he said, “is that he’s a nobody—not a celebrity, not in the national news. He’s just one of many who got caught up in something they couldn’t control.”

There is, however, a real-life referent for Tom Durnin—the father of a friend Mr. Levenson knew while growing up with the children of lobbyists and lawyers and doctors in the well-to-do suburbs of D.C. “She had a beautiful home and a plane and a vacation house,” he recalled. “Then, seven or eight years later, I saw her again, and, in the interim, her whole world had collapsed. Her father went to prison for a white-collar crime, and everything that her life had been built on went with him. At the point where I reconnected with her, she was just struggling to put things back together.”

He found her reversal of fortune doubly heart-wrenching—awful for the child, but also trying for the parent. What must it be like to have to put everything back together?

“What I love about Tom Durnin—and what David has created so beautifully—is he’s somebody who’s not remorseful,” Mr. Levenson said. “He’s sorry he got caught and he’s sorry that he hurt other people, but he’s not fundamentally sorry about what he did, because he does feel like he did his time. In spite of all the immoral things he’ll do to get it, what he actually wants is so basic, so elemental—he just wants his family back. I find myself rooting for him.”

Casting Tom Durnin was a tricky business. Luckily, David Morse specializes in sympathy-for-the-devil roles—most notably, as Mary-Louise Parker’s predatory uncle in Paula Vogel’s Pulitzer Prize-winning How I Learned To Drive, a tightrope act that got him a raft of Off Broadway prizes in 1997.

Mr. Levenson and the play’s director, Scott Ellis, were looking for someone “who could do very bad things and we’d still somehow feel something for him,” Mr. Levenson said. Mr. Morse fit the bill. “There’s an inherent decency to David as a person that he brings to his work as an actor, something just innately kind and humane about him that he can’t help but bring to what he does.”

Mr. Morse said his job was made easier by the clear track Mr. Levenson had laid out in his writing. “Steven has a remarkable ability in this play to feel deeply for his characters without telling us how to feel about them,” he said. “The dialogue we speak has the quality of overheard conversations—it’s truly fun to speak—and the lives we live in the play feel like lives we all have experienced in our own families. He does all this with wonderful humor and insight, even a bit of poetry. What he understands about the lives of these characters seems beyond his years. His generosity in not judging them—leaving that to us and the audience—is part of what makes the play so good.”

Tom Durnin runs on a full tank of delusions. “Tom thinks that he’s in a love story,” said Mr. Levenson, “that this is a story about putting his family back together and getting back with the love of his life. Nobody else sees it that way, of course, but he does. There’s something very romantic about him. We’re all delusional in our own ways.”

In the way that Tom’s failure in the workplace leads to larger failures as a father, there are echoes of the early Arthur Miller (All My Sons and Death of a Salesman). Tom’s daughter is not speaking to him—he has to negotiate through his son-in-law (Rich Sommer). He only enters the life and apartment of his son (Christopher Denham) by conning a passkey out of his super. Then there’s the seething ex-wife (Lisa Emery).

And yet, said Mr. Levenson, “the issues raised by those Miller plays are very different from the issues we have today. They were all about the scandal of finding out that you don’t matter or that a business purporting to be one thing is something else. Today we don’t even have those expectations. We’re too cynical. We’re all sorta ‘flexible’ now.”

He would know about being flexible. He started out as an actor and ricocheted into writing. “Mostly, I acted in college. I was in a tiny workshop of the first production of Steve Karam’s Speech and Debate when I was at Brown University, and I did a couple of readings in New York for Roundabout. They didn’t cast me in the show, but they did read my play. That’s how I got on Robyn Goodman’s radar.”

Ms. Goodman and Roundabout kingpin Todd Haimes created a much-acclaimed new-play program for The Black Box, a new venue under the Laura Pels’s main stage. Speech and Debate was the inaugural production. Mr. Levenson’s The Language of Trees was the second. “I wrote that play so long ago, it feels like a very different voice now. I was 21 and so wrapped up in what was happening in Iraq and with the Bush presidency, I guess, because I was in college and that was so in the zeitgeist then.”

The Language of Trees looked in on another American household where the father’s away (albeit off winning the war). One of Mr. Levenson’s teachers at Brown saw the potential in the play. “If you want to do this, you can,” Paula Vogel told him. Few words, he said, “have had such an impact on my life.”

When he arrived in New York around five years ago, he fielded his fair share of temp jobs before snagging a couple of writing commissions that spared him the necessity of a day job. When these ran dry, he returned, leadenly, to a small boutique SAT-tutoring company. He drew on that experience in Core Values. “It’s a New York City phenomenon, where there’s a business owner who’s very passionate about his work, but just the nature of the people you hire in New York tends to be people who have other aspirations. I found that a really poignant dilemma.”

The main character in Core Values—the owner of a real estate agency—was played by Reed Birney. “I felt that was—literally—a tailor-made role for me,” Mr. Birney said. “And so easy to play, because he understood that guy so well. He really seems to understand the middle-aged angst, which was quite remarkable given how young he is.”

For his next play, Mr. Levenson is teaming up with a couple of other 20-something wunderkinds, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, whose songs just snagged a Lortel Award (Dogfight) and a Tony nomination (A Christmas Story). He said he’s been enjoying the collaboration. “Writing can be such a solitary process—and mostly is—but there’s something really satisfying to come up with an idea and character, then come back a few weeks later [and] this character you just dreamed up suddenly has a song. It’s so much more exciting than a monologue.”