David Morse has played his share of creeps and losers but none with such power and dark conviction as the title role in “The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin.”
You’re going to hate Tom, a white-collar crook with a gift for destabilizing everyone within range.
Whether you find him worthy in his repugnance or merely someone worth crossing the street to avoid will depend largely on your response to Morse, a big man giving an outsize performance that’s the opposite of charismatic.
Steven Levenson’s harrowing play begins with Tom’s release from a minimum-security prison after five years for sinking the savings of everyone who counted on him into a business he knew was failing. Family -- a wife and two children -- and friends were left destitute.
He shows up at the house that his estranged son, James (Christopher Denham), has just moved into, a shabby subdivision pocked with foreclosures. (Beowulf Boritt’s grim set and Donald Holder’s bleak lighting establish the dead-end atmosphere perfectly.)
What seems at first a contrite act of attempted reconnection turns into something darker as Tom asks first for money and, when that’s not forthcoming, temporary use of the living room while he tries to get back on his feet.
Each subsequent encounter with his son-in-law (“Mad Men’s” Rich Sommer) and now ex-wife (Lisa Emery) reveals a further degree of Tom’s mendacity. Its almost genetic impact on James --trying in the wake of his own ruined relationship, to start fresh with a new woman (Sarah Goldberg) but tangled in his own web of lies -- is equally unsettling, if less convincingly drawn.
Scott Ellis has staged the drama with a sure, churning build-up of suspense. “Tom Durnin” isn’t pleasant, but it is riveting theater.
Through Aug. 25 at the Roundabout/Laura Pels Theatre, 111 W. 46th St. Information: +1-212-719-1300; http://www.roundabouttheatre.org. Rating: ****
Barbra Streisand’s 2010 “My Passion for Design,” a lavish coffee-table book with shelter-porn photographs of her spare-no-expense home and estate, inspired Jonathan Tolins’s “Buyer & Cellar.” It’s a mean, funny and finally moving one-man show that has transferred to a commercial run in Greenwich Village.
In a chapter dedicated to her basement, Streisand wrote, “I had another idea for this space. Why not do a street of shops like I had seen at Winterthur?”
The reference is to the DuPont museum of decorative arts in Delaware, and it’s all Tolins needs to spin out his gossipy, obsessive fantasy: “So that’s what she did,” says Alex More. “She built a shopping mall in her basement.”
Michael Urie plays Alex, an out-of-work Los Angeles actor who hears about a job opening and shows up chez Streisand. The job, as explained by the housekeeper, is to spend days and nights in the basement mall, making sure everything is just so for the single “customer” who may or may not ever appear.
There’s an antique-doll shoppe and clothing boutiques. Frozen yogurt and popcorn machines whir, ever at the ready to serve.
Soon Streisand comes on down and they begin a bizarre negotiation of the price of a doll (which of course is hers to begin with), as Alex improvises a back-story for the object and assesses its value. Under the deft direction of Stephen Brackett, Urie plays all of these characters -- Alex; his boyfriend; James Brolin; the housekeeper; and Barbra herself -- with quicksilver changes and exacting detail. (Barbra is a bit too Quasimodo-ish, but maybe she’s developed back issues?)
Alex and Babs open up to each other in what looks like friendship but turns out in the end to be, like the basement mall itself, merely the soulless facsimile of one.
At the Barrow Street Theatre, 27 Barrow St., Greenwich Village. Information: +1-212-868-4444; http://www.smarttix.com. Rating: ***1/2
(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the writer of this column: Jeremy Gerard in New York at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at email@example.com.