06/27/2013 03:55 pm ET Updated Aug 27, 2013

Aisle View: Skeleton in the Closet

There's a skeleton in the closet in Steven Levenson's moderately interesting but ultimately unsatisfying new play, The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin. Levenson keeps us guessing -- and keeps us curious about his secret -- for about two-thirds of the evening. The secret finally spills out, immediately followed by the most engrossing scene in the show. After which the tension, and our attention, dissipates and the 100-minute play starts to seem overlong.

We know within a few minutes that the middle-aged stranger who turns up in James Durnin's cluttered living room is his father, direct from five years in prison. But why was he sent away? Something so bad happened -- seemingly -- that the viewer's mind might reasonably stray from the plot at hand, and not to the play's advantage. When the pair get into an intense scene, we wonder: was Tom Durnin put away for molesting this now-grown boy? When Tom plays a scene with a naive twenty-something girl, we wonder: Is something violent going to happen here, on stage in front of us? In both cases, the answer is no. In both cases, though, Levenson raises questions -- intentionally or not -- that distract us from what we more properly should be paying attention to.

Fortunately, David Morse is on hand playing the title character. Morse, as we've seen in the past, is capable of instantaneously switching from charming to manipulative to dangerous. This works well for the play, and for the playwright; we believe just about everything Morse does. At some points, though, we are reminded of How I Learned to Drive and how good Morse was in that Pulitzer Prize-winning play.

At other moments, watching Christopher Denham as the son, we are reminded of Sons of the Prophet, the New York Drama Critics' Circle-winning play by Stephen Karam that Roundabout produced in the same space five shows back. At other moments, we are reminded of Paul Zindel's Pulitzer-winning The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds. The more we stop to think of other (and better) plays, the more removed we are--unavoidably--from The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin.

Things are not helped by the choppiness of the script. Levenson -- whose Language of Trees was produced at Roundabout Underground in 2008, and resulted in the present commission -- has written the play in 18 scenes. Some long, some brief, with multiple scenes in five different locales. After a while, things get mighty clunky, and they are not helped by director Scott Ellis or set designer Beowulf Boritt. The main locales -- two apartments, on a turntable -- are cramped on half the stage, while the rest is an underused and distracting limbo. Less scenery and more imagination might have helped make the action more fluid.

Morse's performance is matched by Lisa Emery in the relatively small role of Tom's ex-wife. She finally explodes in a scene which lays Durnin bare, and she is terrific. But The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin is uneven and ultimately frustrating.