You might expect Katie Holmes to have something to prove in her first acting appearance since splitting from Tom Cruise. You might expect her to emerge onstage in a gown by Valentino and shoes by Jimmy Choo.
Well, put those expectations aside. In Theresa Rebeck’s new Broadway play, Holmes first appears in sweat pants and fuzzy pink slippers, her hair in a frazzled ponytail and her spoon in a quart of antidepressant ice cream.
In “Dead Accounts,” Holmes plays an “old but pretty” woman who “seems like a loser” and lives at home with her parents. She only flashes her beauty once, freeing her hair and looking seductive — enough to remind you what a head-turner she can be.
It’s a brave move for the 33-year-old, who deserves credit for trying hard. But she mostly tries hard to keep up with stage veterans Norbert Leo Butz and Jayne Houdyshell in Rebeck’s oddly thin new play, which opened Thursday at the Music Box Theatre. Director Jack O’Brien struggles to both get the five-person cast to really jibe and the rhythm of the plot to get going.
Holmes relies too much on a whiny teenage angst and a guilelessness that worked on TV but lacks nuance onstage. That said, she does generate two of the biggest cheers in the play — one for pulling out a cheap box of wine from the fridge and the other for an anti-bankers rant that sounds like it could come from an Occupy Wall Street protester.
Rebeck, who created the first season of NBC’s “Smash” and several well-received plays including “Seminar” and “Mauritius,” has stumbled a bit with “Dead Accounts,” a love letter to the hardworking, plainspoken Midwest, but one that lacks the sharpness and depth of her previous work.
Too often Rebeck’s insights come in the form of clunky fortune cookie proverbs, as when one character says, “It’s complicated. But anything true, is!” Or when another says: “Religion and money are just the dumb things we use to plug up the hole in our hearts because we’re so afraid of dying.”
The heavy lifting is done by Butz, who plays Jack, a banker who one day abandons his rich life in Manhattan for the calmer hometown sweetness of Cincinnati and his listless sister (Holmes), old buddy (a contained Josh Hamilton) and his slightly demented mother (a delightful Houdyshell). His chilly wife (nicely nasty Judy Greer) follows.
Jack is slightly crazed, buying too much ice cream and pizzas, sitting too close to people, spouting strange manic philosophy and flitting generally too close to the psychic edge. His sister puts it perfectly when she calls him “very a lot.” The Act I curtain falls on the stunning reason he has fled.
Butz at first seems to be overcompensating for the smallness of Holmes, but the anguish and heart of his character are revealed beautifully. Butz makes Jack both lovesick in one moment and thunderously revengeful in the next, showing the complexity of a Midwestern boy in love with his local hot dogs and yet one who has grown comfortable in his plush steak-eating New York life.
But “Dead Accounts” doesn’t really resolve anything or really end. It just sort of peters out, its momentum lost and none of its issues resolved. There’s a halfhearted, last-second attempt to bring grace to Jack, but it’s more of a Hail Mary-type pass, one born out of desperation. At the play’s end, it feels like the audience itself should be handed quarts of ice cream as a commiserative olive branch.
For Katie Holmes, “Dead Accounts” had the potential to be a post-divorce pick-me-up. She throws herself gamely into her second Broadway show (her first was “All My Sons” in 2008) and her role as Lorna, a sad-sack, single Cincinnati girl reluctantly living at home with her parents.
Holmes, 33, a film and TV starlet notorious for being one-half of the now-defunct supercouple TomKat, plies her lopsided grin, furrows her brow, cranks her voice level to loud and lets down her long brown hair in a flirty move that the boys of “Dawson’s Creek” would appreciate.
Unfortunately, Holmes’ efforts add up to zilch. The stillborn comedy she’s in is so stupefyingly unfocused that it plays like a draft, not a finished work.
If, like me, you’re an admirer of its author, Theresa Rebeck, it’s also a big disappointment. From “Spike Heels” in ’92 to last year’s “Seminar,” Rebeck’s work has shown smarts, topicality and zingy dialogue. No, resolutions aren’t her forte. And yes, she trafficks in cliches, as seen on “Smash,” the TV series she created and was bounced from after a season. Commissioned by the Cincinnati Playhouse, her latest effort is one of her weakest works.
A surprise homecoming sets the plot in motion. Lorna’s high-strung banker brother, Jack (Norbert Leo Butz), is back from the Big Apple. What’s he doing there? Where’s his wife? Jack gorges on ice cream, instead of spoonfeeding explanations. He grouses to Lorna, their God-loving mom (Jayne Houdyshell) and family pal Phil (Josh Hamilton) that Manhattan has no air, manners, soul or trees.
Thanks for the hate letter to New York. Not that Midwesterners and their love of cheap boxed wine — this got a huge laugh the other night — don’t get dinged.
In lieu of an engaging story, unseen people, including the sibs’ sick dad, are gabbed about while undeveloped thematic strands dangle. Ideas rise up about staying put in one’s hometown vs. leaving, buying into God vs. worshipping money and life in New York vs. the Midwest.
After an hour, Jack’s wife, Jenny (Judy Greer, miscast as a model of urbanity), arrives and reveals that her soon-to-be ex has raided neglected bank accounts of dead people to the tune of $27 million. The huge sum is a device to reveal Jenny’s greed and to give Lorna an aria about why she can’t fret about banks getting screwed.
Director Jack O’Brien can’t do much with the material, so he puts his energy into moody scene changes. And he cast Butz, who he guided to Best Actor Tony wins in “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” and “Catch Me If You Can.”
Scruffy and compact, Butz does bad-boy charmer better than almost anyone. He lays outsize gestures and verbal antics on thick, as actors do when they have nothing to work with. Then, like the play, Jack gets introspective in the last five minutes.
Lorna’s Arbor Day recollection seems to spark an epiphany for Jack, accompanied by a shift in David Rockwell’s Midwest kitchen set. In life, in love, in everything, you reap what you sow, or in this case, plant.
Or there’s another Arbor-inspired flash: Good plays don’t grow on trees.
A lot of eating takes place in the new Broadway comedy “Dead Accounts,” but there’s little for the audience to chew on. While the producers were busy signing up Katie Holmes and Norbert Leo Butz, playwright Theresa Rebeck forgot to write a show.
Rebeck (“Seminar,” TV’s “Smash”) is nothing if not a pro, and it’s hard to believe she thought her effort was finished. With its cardboard characters and implausible developments, “Dead Accounts” feels like a rough first draft.
What does come through loud and clear is the sound of Butz’s jaws working overtime as he chomps on large quantities of food, along with the scenery.
The Tony-winning star of “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” and “Catch Me If You Can” should be declared a Broadway Treasure: Holmes may be the name luring ticket buyers, but it’s Butz who makes sure they get their money’s worth.
Here he plays Jack, a flashy mucky-muck who has returned unannounced to his family’s Cincinnati home. Jack has been living in New York for a while, and spits out glib one-liners about the Big Apple versus the Heartland as he binges on Graeter’s ice cream, cheese Coneys and pizza.
Too much is never enough for this high-flier, who bribes an employee $1,000 to keep his ice-cream store open after-hours. “The free market is a beautiful thing,” Jack crows.
“That’s not the free market,” his uptight sister Lorna (Holmes) shoots back. “That’s stealing.”
Lorna’s still living at home with their parents, though we see only Mom, Barbara (Jayne Houdyshell). Dad, Jack and Lorna’s four other siblings are unseen — guess the casting budget got tight.
Houdyshell (“Follies”) is affecting as a put-upon mother. Josh Hamilton nails the placidity of Jack’s school friend, Phil, who’s sweet on Lorna — though you’re not sure whether Phil’s really nice or really dumb. Both do their honorable best with underwritten characters.
Holmes, on the other hand, doesn’t have similar stage chops to fall back on. She’s got one note — shrill, impatient — and yells it at top volume, making a vein bulge on her slender neck. (A recurring joke about Lorna going on a diet falls flat.)
You wish director Jack O’Brien had told his star to tone it down a notch, but he seems to have just leaned back and prayed for the best.
Comic timing usually isn’t an issue for the excellent Judy Greer (“Arrested Development”), who plays Jack’s ice-queen wife, Jenny. But she has little to work with, other than a tirade in which Jenny mocks Barbara’s house with clichés: “There are little ceramic plates on the walls with pictures painted on them; I’m not making this up.”
Rebeck tries to introduce some gravity by bringing up faith, ethics and the mortgage crisis, but the effort feels half-baked.
At least Butz goes all-out in a bravura performance seasoned with urgent desperation — at Jack’s plight, but also maybe at the play itself.
Any analysis of the chemical makeup of Norbert Leo Butz would surely reveal traces of gunpowder. How else to account for the fireworks that Mr. Butz is conjuring out of thin air at the Music Box Theater, where Theresa Rebeck’s “Dead Accounts” opened on Thursday night?
Make that very thin air — even emaciated air, if there is such a thing. This comedy about a prodigal son, returned from the wilds of New York City to his family in Cincinnati, seems to float out of memory even as you’re watching it. Ms. Rebeck, the author of “Seminar” and “Mauritius,” keeps throwing out weighty subjects — from the ethics of Wall Street to the existence of God — but never cultivates them into anything approaching a solid existence. They all blur into a single jet stream of semisnappy dialogue before changing course a few times and evaporating.
Though the show, directed with an assortment of amiable diversionary tactics by Jack O’Brien, has the form and flavor of a conventional rom-com, you may still leave the theater wondering exactly what it was about; you may then wisely decide that such considerations are not worth the brain power.
Anyway, it’s entirely possible that you have gone to “Dead Accounts” just to see Mr. Butz, a two-time Tony winner, practice his pyrotechnics, or to show your support for Our Katie. That’s Katie Holmes, the movie star and former Mrs. Tom Cruise, who has of late been the victim of relentless tabloid scrutiny.
Let me assure you that Ms. Holmes, who was a tad unsteady in her Broadway debut four years ago in Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons,” appears much more at ease playing a worn-down country mouse to the hyped-up city mouse of Mr. Butz. Gamely unkempt and lumpen, Ms. Holmes suggests what might have happened to Joey Potter, the ultimate girl-next-door she once portrayed on TV in “Dawson’s Creek,” had she never found true love or left town.
For at least its first 15 minutes “Dead Accounts” does manage to command your attention. That’s because its first scene is essentially a sustained aria of nervous energy for Mr. Butz, whose inventively modulated intensity brings to mind the young John Malkovich hijacking the stage with his opening monologue in Lanford Wilson’s “Burn This” some 25 years ago.
Mr. Butz plays Jack, the black (or golden-fleeced, depending on your interpretation) sheep among six siblings in Roman Catholic family. Jack is the one who went East to live big. As the play begins, he is fresh from Manhattan, wearing an Armani suit and a jangle of urban vibes. Like many self-invented New Yorkers, Jack is a grandstander, and he has an appreciative audience in Lorna (Ms. Holmes), the sister who has stayed home to look after their aging parents.
Pretty much everyone functions as Jack’s audience, and not much else, during the first act. That includes Barbara (Jayne Houdyshell), his mother, whose (unseen) husband is upstairs suffering from kidney stones, and Phil (Josh Hamilton), the friend of his youth.
Whether working his way ecstatically through pints of Graeter’s ice cream, a local delicacy, or rhapsodizing about the trees in the backyard, Jack is a devourer — of food, of attention, of oxygen and, you might infer from his hyperkinetic pace, of pharmaceuticals. Or is he just overly charged with New York adrenaline? Ms. Rebeck devotes much compare-and-contrast time to Eastern versus Midwestern rhythms and mores. Whatever its source, Jack’s atomic heat threatens to warp the linoleum tiles on the kitchen floor. (David Rockwell designed the Norman Rockwell-ish set.)
This Jumping Jack Flash is not only a gas but also quite possibly toxic. The tantalizing early hints of danger in Mr. Butz’s performance are underscored by Jack’s jokey references to murder; by David Weiner’s sinister lighting between scenes; and by Mark Bennett’s sound design, which blends recordings of cozy standards like “Sentimental Journey” with ominous, horror-movie crackles.
Yep, Jack’s got a secret, which — after a lot of cute family quarreling and reminiscing that might have been lifted from an episode of “Everybody Loves Raymond” — is revealed at the end of the first act, when a woman in black, played by Judy Greer, shows up on the doorstep, chic and glowering. This should strike a chord of suspense. But somehow “Dead Accounts” has already turned into a limp chain of anticlimaxes.
This is mostly because Ms. Rebeck doesn’t seem to have settled on a tone or, for that matter, a subject. “Dead Accounts” is, I think, meant to be about the inflation of the superficial in a materialistic society, and the attendant, unsatisfied craving for belief. (The title refers to bank accounts that are of no use to anyone; more I cannot reveal.)
But the play never follows through convincingly on any of its ideas. The breezy, family-friction antics that run throughout don’t tally with the script’s abrupt U-turns into ponderousness. Even Mr. Butz has difficulty pulling off Jack’s second-act lament on the emptiness of an existence “where we are nothing and money is the only thing — and we are just reptiles.” (Come to think of it, that sounds like something Mr. Butz’s character might have said in the short-lived Broadway docudrama “Enron.”) Even worse: Lorna’s segue from a discussion of “dead accounts” to the angry announcement that “death is coming to this house.”
Mr. Hamilton, who is terrific at playing cads, here has the thankless task of being the blandest of good guys. Ms. Greer never transcends her character’s function as a visitor-from-another-planet plot device. Ms. Houdyshell (“Well,” “Follies”) glows with wry maternal warmth, as is her wont, and soaks up most of the audience’s good will.
Despite the differences between their characters’ metabolisms (as well as their acting styles) Ms. Holmes and Mr. Butz summon an appealingly natural family rapport, especially in their first scene, which turns out to have been the show’s high point. You may even forget that Ms. Holmes is Katie Holmes for a moment. Then again, “Dead Accounts” makes you forget a lot of things, like why you’ve bothered to come to the show to begin with.
Ridiculous, I know, to worry about Katie Holmes. She has beauty, money, family and appears to be a very nice person. Similarly, it feels silly to be concerned about playwright Theresa Rebeck. Yes, she was noisily dumped at "Smash," the TV show she created, but she's had five major productions here in the past six years. "Dead Accounts" -- Holmes' first move to establish herself as more than a celebrity divorcee -- is the sixth.
But how did Holmes and a bushel of theater talents, including director Jack O'Brien, take a wrong turn into this slim screech of a sitcom, a scattershot slice of stereotypical life with characters as unbelievable as they are unlikeable? Written on commission by a theater in Rebeck's hometown of Cincinnati, the script pretends to embrace Midwest over New York values but flattens both into insults.
On the plus side, audiences coming to see a miscast Holmes will be introduced to Norbert Leo Butz. The actor, actually the star of the play, does yet another of his nonstop hyperactive eccentrics with which he won Tonys in "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" and "Catch Me If You Can." Sure, he starts at manic and revs up from there. If he seems to be working too hard this time, notice, please, how little there is to push against him.
He plays Jack, a fugitive New York hotshot, who mysteriously returns home pulling money and pills from his Armani pockets as if they were clown cars. Holmes is -- get this -- his plain sister, an inexplicable underachiever, ludicrously on a diet and caring for their not especially needy parents. Holmes, who made a respectable, if unspectacular, Broadway debut four years ago in "All My Sons," fades into the kitchen wallpaper during light comedy. But when her character toughens up in the more dramatic second act, so does she.
Even the wondrous Jayne Houdyshell -- in hair curlers, no less -- can't make the Catholic-mother cliche seem real, Judy Greer is bizarrely inelegant as Jack's estranged, rich New York wife, but Josh Hamilton has a quiet sweetness as Jack's high school friend.
There's a once-over-lightly theme about faith and money, along with mass quantities of comfort food and absurd generalizations about what people in the Midwest think. The kitchen set is cartoon ugly. The second act gets suddenly sappy about trees. O'Brien tries to art-up the scene changes with moody lights and different versions of "Sentimental Journey." This doesn't help.
In Theresa Rebeck's new play, Dead Accounts (* * * out of four), there really are two Americas. But we're not separated into haves and have-nots, or red and blue states.
Turns out it's even starker than that, and more geographically limited: Friends, we are a nation divided between Midwesterners and Manhattanites.
The central character, Jack -- played with characteristic vigor and wit by stage veteran Norbert Leo Butz -- is a man torn between these two identities. Raised in suburban Cincinnati, he left to pursue his fortune in the financial capital of the world, and apparently did quite well for himself. But when the play opens, he has abruptly returned to his childhood home, harboring a dark secret or two, and is trying to drown his sorrows in buckets of Graeter's ice cream.
"It's, like, the best ice cream in the world," Jack gushes to his confused sister, Lorna -- played by Katie Holmes, in her second Broadway gig -- who has been helping her aging mom take care of her ailing dad. Jack's New York friends, with their gelato tastes, are too "superior" to deserve such unfussy gastronomical bliss, he decides.
Food and drink figure prominently in Accounts, which opened Thursday at the Music Box Theatre; cheese coneys and box wine also serve to distinguish the salt-of-the-earth types that Jack grew up with from folks like his estranged wife, Jenny, who dresses entirely in black and has apparently never seen a linoleum floor. "No one has ever seen her eat anything," Lorna notes, after Jenny has turned up on her own to fill in a few holes in Jack's story.
But if this light/dark comedy is too simplistic to tackle the questions it raises -- not just about cultural and culinary differences, but about faith and moral responsibility -- it is also Rebeck's most robustly entertaining Broadway entry to date, with dialogue that crackles and purrs even when the underlying points seem contrived or specious.
It helps that director Jack O'Brien has such a finely tuned ear for ensemble comedy, and that his ensemble here includes such consummate pros as Butz and Jayne Houdyshell, who as Jack and Lorna's staunchly Catholic mom, Barbara, contributes some of the most drily funny and moving moments. Judy Greer's Jenny is convincingly severe, and Josh Hamilton plays Phil, an old school friend who has long carried a torch for Lorna, with the perfect low-key sweetness.
As for Holmes, she appears more at ease than she did in a 2008 revival of All My Sons, and shows an affinity for goofy comedy; but her restless, shouting Lorna is too much of an overgrown kid. That's certainly part of the character, but you can't help but wonder what a slightly more mature, nuanced actress might have brought to the role.
Fortunately, like other quandaries left unresolved or insufficiently explained in Dead Accounts, that doesn't detract from a generally polished and thoroughly diverting production.
Katie Holmes is ideally cast in "Dead Accounts." Not because she's that Katie Holmes, but because the fresh-faced star effortlessly projects the Midwestern virtues of honesty and moral integrity that scribe Theresa Rebeck celebrates. These values are kicked around in an amusing if aimless way in this comedy about a rogue hero (the perfect role for Norbert Leo Butz) who throws himself on the family bosom after behaving badly in New York. Rebeck opens up some smart arguments about old-time values in a modern world, but these circular conversations are too shallow to rock the boat.
Helmer Jack O'Brien pulls off his usual expert casting job, with Butz at the center of all things as a lovable scoundrel who heads home to Cincinnati after stealing $27 million from the inactive (i.e., "dead") accounts at his New York bank. In Butz's highly inventive perf as Jack, this manic thief pitches the argument that something judged a crime by Midwestern moral standards is no more than creative bookkeeping in New York.
"The people who own the money don't exist," he reasons, and since the people who hold it in trust never touch it, "There is like this completely ambiguous space between them and the money."
Jack's twisted logic touches a chord with his sister, Lorna (Holmes), who feels just as constrained by local moral codes, but values the regional ethnic over Wall Street cynicism and greed. "No one in the Midwest gives a shit about banks right now," she says of the heartless institutions that sent the local economy reeling. "So don't go acting like it's so terrible he stole from a bank. No one here cares." Sincerity brimming in her wide-open and completely honest eyes, Holmes delivers that rip-roaring defense with refreshing candor -- and a solid sense of comic timing.
Comic timing happens to be Jayne Houdyshell's stock in trade. As matriarch of this God-fearing household, she won't condone son Jack's bad-boy behavior. But she's amusingly determined to overlook anything, including grand larceny, that might keep her from running her house her way. (And a very neat, clean house it is, in David Rockwell's set design.)
The arrival of Jack's estranged wife, Jenny (Judy Greer), opens the floor to Rebeck's funniest cracks about the vast cultural gulf that separates New York from the rest of the country. "There actually is, seriously, linoleum flooring," she sneers to a friend on the phone. "Linoleum, it's not a myth."
Jack throws himself into battle, defending the home turf where he has run for protective cover and spiritual reclamation. "My family is nice," he says, surprising himself with his lack of irony. "We're in the Midwest, we're too polite to be mean."
But Butz has to push for laughs in his scenes with Greer's bland Jenny, a role that cries out for the cutting edge of a current-day Holland Taylor or Christine Baranski. Better to turn away from that awkward tug of war and focus on the easygoing match between Holmes' unassuming Lorna and Josh Hamilton's Phil, the sweetest swain a corn-fed girl could ever hope for.
The bad news about "Dead Accounts" is that the material is too thin even to support its modest ideas. And while there are smart parts and clever bits, they don't add up to the stimulating stuff of dramatic comedy. As a commissioned piece for the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, the piece probably carried more weight (and earned more affection) than it does here among jaded New Yorkers.