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NEW YORK — Watching Katie Holmes play a woman chafing against a stifling situation in Dead Accounts, just a block from the New York headquarters of the Church of Scientology, the symbolic parallels are irresistible. When the character played by Josh Hamilton finally overcomes his timidity and declares his love for her with a kiss, the moment signifies the escape of this frustrated Midwesterner to a more fulfilling life. The exhaustive tabloid chronicles of Holmes’ recent flight to independence provide an amusing subtext, something otherwise lacking in Theresa Rebeck’s superficial new comedy.
Directed with a nimble hand by Jack O’Brien, the Broadway production assembles a terrific five-person cast. Two-time Tony winner Norbert Leo Butz is in typically wired, Energizer Bunny form, with Holmes ably playing foil. After appearing in a supporting part in the 2008 revival of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, the actress brings a lovely naturalness to her first starring Broadway role, along with frazzled warmth and judicious glimmers of a more brittle edge. Heretofore unlucky in love, and stuck at home with her aging parents, her character, Lorna, remains mostly reactive until the second act. But Holmes animates her with an appealingly fresh stage presence.
The play, however, suffers from the same shortcomings that often cramp the theater work of Rebeck, a veteran TV writer whose credits include NYPD Blue, Law & Order: Criminal Intent and Smash, a series she created but was cut loose from by NBC after season one. Dead Accounts is all surface polish and minimal depth. It has lively dialogue, well-drawn characters and a smattering of smart observations about contemporary life. But it never acquires thematic coherence. The setup is capable if a little unhurried, but the payoff is negligible, too often stuffing overworked wisdom into its characters’ mouths to make points upon which the writer fails to expand.
Exactly what the central point is remains hazy. Lorna perhaps gets close when she likens religion to money as “the dumb things we use to plug up the hole in our hearts.” Corporate and personal greed are on the play’s agenda, as is the moral elasticity we allow ourselves where family members are concerned and where personal gain is a factor. There are also rather obvious reflections on the fundamental differences between East Coast thinking, with all its jaded considerations, and the more black-and-white Midwest, where the rulebook on sin tends to make for cleaner distinctions.
O’Brien punctuates the scenes with strains of “Sentimental Journey,” an unsubtle description of the return of Jack (Butz) to the leafy Cincinnati suburbs of his upbringing. Descending on his sister Lorna unannounced one night, he exuberantly sings the praises of local ice cream, cheese coneys, air, space and trees, while scorning the relative suffocation of life in New York.
To his mother, Barbara (Jayne Houdyshell), Jack is still the golden boy of her six children, despite his reluctance to go upstairs and see his ailing father. And Jack’s easygoing high school buddy Phil (Hamilton) is happy simply to have reconnected to the family of his longtime crush. Only Lorna seems troubled by the suspicious wads of cash her brother is carrying. There’s also the conspicuous absence of his wife Jenny (Judy Greer), an ice princess from old money who has done nothing to earn the affections of Jack’s family.
When Jenny shows up just prior to intermission, she drops a cliffhanger bombshell that explains the source of the funds and the cloud under which Jack left his job at an international finance institution. The saggy second act explores the fallout from Jack’s implausible-sounding creative banking practices, with opinions ranging as to how or if he should atone for his misdeeds. However, rather than resolving these issues, Rebeck leaves them hanging in a non-ending.
The playwright constantly walks an unsteady line between idealizing and mocking what she portrays as the mundane serenity and old-fashioned values of small-town life, taking soft digs at the cold comforts of Catholicism and its rigid moral guidelines. At the same time, using Jack as her mouthpiece, she both celebrates and abhors the excitement and excess of heathen, criminal, wealth-worshipping New York.
The problem is that Dead Accounts sits amorphously between the humor of smug big-city superiority and cozy Midwestern insularity. It’s telling that one of the play’s biggest laughs is also among its easiest, when Lorna pulls a box of wine out of the refrigerator as Jenny reacts in stunned, silent horror.
Whether he’s in musicals (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Catch Me If You Can) or plays (Enron), Butz is a comic force of nature with a wickedly insouciant streak. He’s perfect casting here, but there’s a nagging sense of an actor working extremely hard with low-yield material. The play is funny, just not uproarious enough to hide its lack of substance or consistency. It’s also somewhat questionable that despite Jack’s accumulated distaste for New York and the soul-crushing grind of the capitalist treadmill, he still loves Jenny. A textbook example of aloof entitlement, she’s an arid character. And while Greer’s deft comic timing is always a pleasure to watch, she’s miscast.
The understated work of Hamilton and Holmes — as Phil dances nervously around his 25-year attraction to Lorna and she remains stubbornly oblivious — gives the play a sliver of emotional engagement. The real gem, however, is Houdyshell as a sweet-natured but bluntly judgmental Everymother, conveying plenty with just a chastening sideways glance or a careworn sigh. Even if the play’s rewards are patchy, witnessing Barbara steamroll her way into Lorna’s phone conversations is pretty close to comedy gold.
Venue: Music Box Theatre, New York (runs through Feb. 24)
Cast: Norbert Leo Butz, Katie Holmes, Judy Greer, Josh Hamilton, Jayne Houdyshell
Director: Jack O’Brien
Playwright: Theresa Rebeck
Set designer: David Rockwell
Costume designer: Catherine Zuber
Lighting designer: David Weiner
Music and sound designer: Mark Bennett
Presented by Jeffrey Finn, John N. Hart Jr., David Mirvish, Amy Nauiokas, Ergo Entertainment, Harriet Newman Leve, Double Gemini Productions, 3toGo Entertainment, Shubert Organization
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