Learning what happened to a girl he knew in high school impacted the work of playwright Steven Levenson.
The young woman had been remembered as the daughter of a very successful and wealthy corporate lawyer providing a dream life for his family, but a devastating change in circumstances upended the luxurious existence that had seemed so enduring.
The father was serving a prison sentence for securities fraud, and his daughter had to grapple with the scandal and ensuing financial hardship.
“It all happened in the time of the financial crisis, and I found the whole story heartbreaking,” Levenson says. “There was so much malfeasance then, but big players kept their jobs and lifestyles while this man had gone to jail for several years. Those things merged into a story.”
Levenson’s fictional story, The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin, moves the issues into repercussions experienced after a man returns from prison. It is being staged March 15-April 9 at the Meadow Brook Theatre in Rochester, where Travis Walter directs a cast that includes Loren Bass as Tom and Lucas Wells as his son, James Durnin.
The drama explores themes that recur throughout the playwright’s work — the challenge of enacting personal change and the emotional effects of family relationships.
The local production is being staged at a time of great success for the 32-year-old playwright. His musical Dear Evan Hansen is getting Broadway acclaim, and his new play, If I Forget, recently opened in New York as his first work focused on Jewish characters.
“It’s pretty remarkable to have a play on Broadway at the same time as my playwriting teacher from Brown University, Paula Vogel,” Levenson says. “I feel incredibly gratified, lucky and in shock that all this is happening. It’s been great.
“Paula Vogel, an incredible playwright in her own right [formerly with How I Learned to Drive and currently with Indecent], read my work during my senior year and said she thought this was something I could do.”
The Meadow Brook production introduces a father and son and ultimately a family, broken and trying to put their world back together. Dear Evan Hansen is about a teen with social anxiety disorder confronting a misunderstanding surrounding the death of a classmate. If I Forget follows three siblings attempting to resolve differences while marking their father’s birthday.
“Can humans actually have the capacity to change or will we forever repeat the same patterns?” Levenson asks. “I don’t know if I’ve changed, but it’s the question I’m most interested in. How I feel kind of depends on the day.
“I guess it’s something that all theater, by its nature, asks because we witness these characters in these stories, and we see whether the events that happen to them fundamentally transform them.”
Levenson, who describes growing up in “a pretty standard middle-class Jewish family in Bethesda, Md.,” entered college with plans to become an actor, but his early classes left a creative void.
“I wanted to tell stories that were my stories rather than just interpret somebody else’s,” says the playwright, who often traveled to Ann Arbor for visits with his uncle, the late Jonathan Ship, a dental researcher and professor.
“I create characters over a long period of time. Because I write plays, it’s finding their voices and sharing that. I sit down and write a biography of each character, and as I’m writing that, I start to figure out their family histories, which contain a window into their psychology.
“Somewhere along the way, as I start to write a play, I begin to hear and recognize their voices. Once that happens, I know I’m on to something, and I can continue.”
Levenson’s first job after college was at Playwrights Horizons, an off-Broadway theater, where he read submitted manuscripts and decided whether they merited review by people at a higher level in the company. He did that for two years while working on his own.
As the Roundabout Theatre Company started a program presenting works by emerging playwrights, Levenson submitted The Language of Trees, a play he began in college. It was accepted as the second play in the program, and that drew enough attention to bring commissions.
“I had to temp and do things like that for several years before I started working with Benj Pasek and Justin Paul [U-M alums; see “Celebrity Jews in this issue] on Dear Evan Hansen,” explains Levenson, introduced to the songwriting team by a producer. “Soon, I got my first job in television, writing for the show Masters of Sex.
“I’ve been living in Los Angeles for the past five years working for the show while continuing to write plays and musicals. The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin happened in the middle of that.”
Taking writing priority now is a film project about industrial musicals of the 1950s. Levenson is working with songwriters Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman.
“Corporations, for their big annual sales meetings and conventions, would have commissioned composers and lyricists in New York to write full-length musicals about their products and companies,” Levenson explains about the subject of the film. “They would hire actors from New York to come in and perform. It was all funny and weird, and there even was one musical about Ford tractors.”
Levenson’s time away from work brings him to the sense of family in a positive way. He and his wife, Whitney, enjoy being with their 17-month-old daughter.
“I think families are probably the most single defining thing about us, and so a lot of my plays are about families,” Levenson says. “I find it fascinating that because families are so close, their capacities to wound one another are incredible.
“It’s this incredible ability to love and this incredible ability to hurt one another that are really volatile and really rich [as subjects].”
Suzanne Chessler Contributing Writer
The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin runs March 15-April 9 at the Meadow Brook Theatre on the campus of Oakland University in Rochester. $27-$42. (248) 377-3300; mbtheatre.com.