Few actors can make us care about -- much less almost forgive -- despicable characters with the finesse of David Morse. Whether he's playing an incestuous uncle in "How I Learned to Drive" or the revenge-driven detective on "House," Morse's pleasant, open face seems to shift from compassion to duplicity with the speed of a passing thought. He can make skin crawl yet, somehow, we like having him around.
Such manipulative virtuosity is invaluable in "The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin," Steven Levenson's smartly engrossing but sometimes strained drama about a privileged family crushed by the catastrophic white-collar crimes of the father. Released after five years in prison, the fellow seems surprised to find himself loathed by his law firm, his depressed son (Christopher Denham), his anxious son-in-law (Rich Sommer) and his wife (Lisa Emery), who has tried to move on.
In 2008, Levenson's "The Language of Trees" delicately explored the effects of a father's job in Iraq on the family left behind. In this one, the playwright is less concerned with analyzing the sins of the father than with unfolding the profound disorientation of people ruined by his decisions.
Is the man delusional or just a desperate liar? Does he really cherish the vivid memories of happier times, or is he just playing them to get what he wants? Can he be all of the above?
Director Scott Ellis encourages Denham and his damaged new girlfriend (Sarah Goldberg) to overplay the awkwardness of their courtship and the climax feels unfinished. Yet Ellis ("The Mystery of Edwin Drood") maintains the almost unrelieved glumness of the 2009 economy without letting things get dull.
The set, by Beowulf Boritt, is dominated by a faded old billboard for the subdivision where the son now lives in near squalor. A scruffy vacant lot surrounds the community college where the son and his friend take a pathetic writing class.
Not a bit pathetic, however, is the creative cauldron that the Roundabout Theatre has fired up in its two-theater Off-Broadway space. In 2007, the theater showcased young Stephen Karam's "Speech and Debate" in its tiny Underground, then commissioned him to write what became the Pulitzer-finalist, "Sons of the Prophet," for the larger Laura Pels Theatre. Similarly, after the success of "Language of Trees" at the Underground, Roundabout commissioned Levenson to write this one for the Pels. Impressive process.
WHAT "The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin"
WHERE Laura Pels Theatre, 111 W. 46th St.
INFO $71-$81; 212-719-1300; roundabouttheatre.org
BOTTOM LINE Engrossing sins-of-the-father drama.