Before rehearsals began, playwright Steven Levenson spoke with Education Dramaturg Ted Sod about his play, The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin.
Ted Sod: Where were you born and educated? When did you decide to become a playwright?
Steven Levenson: I was born in Washington, DC, and I grew up in Bethesda, Maryland. I went to Brown for undergrad, which is where I started writing plays. I’d been involved in theatre as an actor up until that point. My senior year, I took a playwriting course with Paula Vogel, which really changed everything for me. Paula was the first person to say to me, “If you want to do this, this is something you can actually do.” And that was huge for me.
TS: Did you come immediately to New York after you graduated from Brown?
SL: Yes. I lucked into a job as the literary assistant at Playwrights Horizons, which was where a major part of my theatre education happened. I read plays and wrote script coverage and I got to see up close the process of how new play development worked. It also gave me the opportunity to see a tremendous variety of theater in New York, which was invaluable. Getting exposed to all kinds of different work allowed me to really examine what kind of theater I was drawn to and where I could see my own work eventually fitting into that larger landscape.
TS: I want to discuss writing a commissioned play because The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin was commissioned by Roundabout.
SL: It’s strange. Every experience I’ve had so far with writing a commissioned play, including this one, I’ve proposed an idea to the organization commissioning me and then ended up writing something completely different. I feel that might be part of my process. I think there’s an unconscious part of me that thinks that if I say I’m going to do something, I have to rebel against that and do something else. What’s so great about a commission is that you know that you’re not writing in a vacuum. There’s someone who’s waiting to read your play and give you feedback and really work with you on it.
TS: How did you decide this was a subject that was important to you to write about?
SL: The germ of the idea came from a personal experience. A friend of mine in high school, her father was a prominent DC lawyer. The family led what seemed at the time to be a fairly charmed life. I didn’t really keep in touch with her after school. Years later, her father went to prison for a white-collar crime, which everyone who knew this family, this sort of perfect family, found just completely shocking, not at all something anyone would have guessed. Finally, six or seven years after I’d last seen her, I sat down with her and I just found her story – what had happened in those intervening years – completely heartbreaking. It made me wonder what it must be like for her father, who had recently been released from prison, how impossible a task to try to rebuild all that you’ve lost, to start over.
TS: Can you talk about the father-son dynamic between Tom and James?
SL: As I developed the play, it became increasingly important to me that Tom not really seek forgiveness. He got caught with his hands in the cookie jar, but from his perspective everybody else was doing the same thing. He doesn’t come back seeking redemption. He comes back with one mission, which is trying to remake things into the way they were five years ago. For James, there’s so much of him that’s still the child looking up to his father, wanting his father’s love and approval. But at the same time there’s so much rage, all of the hurt and lost time between them. In a way, too, it’s a role reversal. It’s the father moving in with the son. It’s not the kid moving back in with his parents. So it’s a fraught status relationship between the two of them. It’s a constant battle for who is in charge.
TS: I want to talk about the relationship between James and Katie because they’re each bruised and damaged in their own way.
SL: These are two people who are broken in different ways and trying to put the pieces together for themselves. When I started the play, it was primarily Tom’s story. Now it’s a shared story, and Katie really helped unlock that for me. The relationship between James and Katie asks the same questions that the relationship between Tom and James asks: can people change? Can people heal?
TS: How did the collaboration with director Scott Ellis happen?
SL: I thought Scott was the perfect choice. At a certain point in developing the play, we got to where we felt like we wanted to hear it and we started bringing in actors and a director. I immediately said, “Scott is someone I would love to work with.” I’m obviously a big fan of his work. Among his many talents, he’s a fantastic director with actors in terms of crafting performances and I really felt this play needed to be focused on the performances and the dynamics between these characters.
TS: What were you looking for from the actors?
SL: Tom and James were both tricky to cast, because we were looking for so many different things from each of them. For Tom, what you really want is someone with the strength and the ferocity of that character, but also someone whom the audience can really fall in love with. We want the audience to be as much under his spell as the other characters in the play are. He’s a broken person but he wasn’t always like that. He has a certain craftiness and intelligence about him and a powerful charisma. David Morse is an actor who can switch on a dime from being compassionate and sensitive in one instant and then be utterly terrifying in the next. For James, we were really looking for vulnerability, somebody who could capture the damage that this young man has gone through and who can also convey that with a sense of humor and self-deprecation. We wanted both of these characters to be guys that you root for. Whether or not you continue to root for them, that’s another question. But we certainly lucked out with these two actors.
The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin plays at the Laura Pels Theatre May 31 through August 25. For more information and tickets, visit our website.
This interview is from our Education at Roundabout Upstage Playgoer Guide.
2012-2013 Season, A Conversation with, The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin