Read the plot description of Steven Levenson's The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin, about a disgraced lawyer who returns to his family seeking redemption after a spell in prison, and one name may immediately leap to mind. Levenson wants you know something about his new play — it's not about Bernie Madoff.
"What I find compelling about this story, is that Tom Durnin is not Bernie Madoff," said Levenson. "He's not a national story. He's just this tiny dot on this landscape of these much bigger crimes. So while I tried to know a lot about that Madoff stuff, I also tried to keep it away from that a little bit. I didn't want it to be that story. I thought there was something so sad about someone who'd never had that level of power and influence who nevertheless gets ensnared in something so devastating."
Levenson found the idea for the drama after getting back in touch with a childhood friend. "In high school, she had led what seemed to me to be a pretty charmed life," he recalled. "Her father was a high-powered D.C. lawyer. They had a huge, beautiful house in Arlington, Virginia." The two lost contact during their college years and, when they reconnected, she had suffered a dramatic reversal of fortune.
"I found out her father had gone to prison after I'd known her, for a white-collar crime. Her life had pretty much been upended, like the characters in this play. I guess what I found so interesting about her story was the part she couldn't really tell me — the father's side of the story. That's what I was most interested in, how you try to come back into people's lives, knowing all the damage you've caused. That was the character I wanted to explore."
Unlike Tom Durnin, Levenson has had a fair amount of good luck throughout his young career. Born and raised in Bethesda, Maryland, he went to Brown University to become an actor. By senior year, however, he had started writing plays. One of his professors was playwright Paula Vogel. "She really took me under her wing," he said. "Right before I graduated she told me, ‘If this is something you want to do, I think you can do this' — meaning writing. That was huge for me. It propelled me through several years of temping and rejection letters and all that."
Upon moving to New York, he landed an internship in the literary department at Playwrights Horizons. When his boss left, he was promoted. Two years later the Roundabout Theatre Company accepted one of his plays, The Language of Trees, for production, leading to the commission that eventually became Tom Durnin.
Another of his plays, Core Values, opened Off-Broadway at Ars Nova shortly before Durnin premiered. "I've never had fewer than two years between productions," said Levenson. "To go from one to the other is very exciting. And kind of terrifying."