First appeared on ArtsinNY.com
The program describes the setting as “The American exurbs. Sam’s Clubs and SUVs and Caribou Coffee and the eerie, shuttered windows of foreclosed strip malls.” That’s a bit pretentious, but, fortunately, this Steven Levenson play avoids similar writerly clichés in its depiction of an America and a family ravaged by economic blight and emotional dishonesty. The titular character is a white-collar criminal, recently released from prison after a five-year sentence for a multimillion-dollar fraud. Through a series of deceptions that parallel his Madoff-like Ponzi scheme, Tom attempts to reconnect with his alienated family. “I just want my life back!” he roars in frustration as his family and colleagues reject his advances and ultimately tell him to just disappear again.
That cry of pain is delivered by David Morse in the most intense moment of a searing performance. Equally piercing is the long-suppressed rage of Tom’s son James, given equal smoldering fire by Christopher Denham who takes on the difficult task of playing a burnt-out character barely able to express his buried desires and passions. James is the protagonist; he is the one who goes through a change. Stuck in a dead-end job selling medical equipment, scarcely keeping his head above water financially, and recovering from an ugly divorce, James seeks escape by enrolling in a writing class and creating an elaborate fiction about two men driving endlessly through Ukrainian mountains. Levenson’s craft is so subtle, we don’t realize until the play is almost over that this seemingly unrelated novel-in-progress is James’s idealized version of reuniting with his father. After Tom moves in with his son and basically wrecks James’s already fragile living situation, the young man seeks to reconcile his damaged past with his uncertain future and his father regretfully disappears again.
Besides the heartbreaking father-son thread, several other relationships work their way through the script. Levenson fleshes out each with fascinating and convincing detail, executed with compassion and dimension by director Scott Ellis and a finely tuned cast. Sarah Goldberg gives Katie, James’s equally woebegone short-story writing classmate and potential new girlfriend, a dithery manner and a little-girl voice. She could have easily become a comedic, Goldie Hawn–like stereotype, but Goldberg plays her with honesty and warmth, avoiding the sitcom extremes.
Likewise, Rich Sommer as Chris, Tom’s sad-sack son-in-law and former subordinate, is buffoonish and moving. In one hysterical scene, Chris explodes at Tom’s manipulative behavior and, a split scene later, complains about having to attend his tiny daughter’s ballet recital. It’s a brilliantly specific moment in which a seeming petty incident clashes with outsize emotion, and Sommer is achingly real in depicting it. Lisa Emery has only two scenes as Karen, Tom’s estranged wife, now married to a successful dentist, but Emery brings all of Karen’s rage, love, and sorrow to blazing life.
Designer Beowulf Borritt’s set of disheveled living rooms and broken-down billboards completes the picture of a wrecked family desperately attempting to heal itself, but the members’ remedies push them further apart.
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