After departing “Smash,” the television series she created that looks with fluttering heart at the making of a Broadway musical, Theresa Rebeck apparently has changed her mind about New York City, judging from her inconsequential and oddly hostile new comedy, “Dead Accounts.” Starring Norbert Leo Butz and Katie Holmes, it opens tonight at The Music Box on Broadway.
At first, the jabs are indirect, and funny. Jack (Butz) has abruptly flown from New York back to his childhood home in Cincinnati , having gone straight from the airport to a store to buy carton after carton of Graeter’s Ice Cream, which he says he can’t get in his adopted city:
People in New York go ‘oh there’s this great place in Brooklyn’ or ‘there’s this gelato place on the Upper West Side’ and I’m like you people have no idea. The best ice cream on the planet is in Cincinnati, Ohio. And they are so fucking superior! ‘Cincinnati? Really?’
He shares the ice cream with his sister Lorna (Holmes) in the home where they and their four other siblings grew up, where Lorna and her parents still live. He eventually tells her, to her shock, that the store had closed for the night, and he bribed the cleaning man inside $1,000 to let him have the cartons of ice cream. In subsequent scenes, he will buy bag after bag of Skyline Chili Cheese Coneys, and then box after box of La Rosa’s Pizza…..other Cincinnati delicacies unavailable to New Yorkers.
Why is he buying so much of this food — and spending so much money for it? Why has he come back to Cincinnati suddenly, without telling anybody? Why does he seem even more high-strung than usual? “I think there’s something wrong,” Lorna tells a neighbor. “I think he’s in trouble.” What kind of trouble is he in?
I am reluctant to answer these questions. Indeed, they present me with something of a moral dilemma – or at least a dilemma more interesting to me than the manufactured one in “Dead Accounts.” What was most entertaining for me about “Dead Accounts” was the mystery behind Norbert Leo Butz’s character – and the teasing, intriguing clues Rebeck sprinkles in the first act, with little surprises leading up to the biggest surprise.
And then the big surprise turns out to be a dud.
So, do I explain the mystery for you – I could do it in a sentence – or do I allow you to experience for yourself the main pleasure I got out of this play?
To be fair, the mystery was not the only pleasure. There are a few performers I find worth watching no matter what role they are playing, and Norbert Leo Butz is one. Jayne Houdyshell, who plays his religious mother caring for an ill (off-stage) husband in “Dead Accounts,” is another. They impress here as always with their timing, delivery, energy, the careful attention and ingenuity they devote in order to create the illusion of spontaneity
The other members of the five-member cast are fine. It is certainly fun to see Katie Holmes back for her sophomore turn on Broadway, playing the sister who never has gotten it together, playing against her beauty in grey sweatpants or dungarees. She is not a central character here, but her comic timing is professional. Her emotional moments are often not credible, but this seems far more the fault of the writing and of Jack O’Brien’s direction. Of course, I could just be smitten by her – as is one of the characters, Phil (Josh Hamilton) – and thus willing to lay the blame elsewhere. I also don’t know whether this is just me failing a theatrical Rorschach test or the playwright’s sly maneuver, but I did perk up each time Katie Holmes said the word “divorce,” which was frequent.
Despite its pleasures, there was an actual moment in Act II when I gave up on “Dead Accounts,” concluding Rebeck hadn’t figured out what to do with her characters and metaphors and her many themes — the corruptions of money, the beauty of second chances in life and love, the comforts of religion, the real-ness of Midwesterners. The play could be renamed Six Themes in Search of An Author. Even David Weiner’s lighting is inexplicable: Why does it change to a kind of spooky moonlight during scene changes, where we can see the actors themselves moving the props? Probably a metaphor for something.
It didn’t help that the playwright, this former show-runner of “Smash” and author of last season’s New York-centric Broadway comedy “Seminar,” exhibits such a sour attitude towards New Yorkers. Exhibit A is the only character in the play who is a real New Yorker — as opposed to Jack, whom we are supposed to see as never having found his place in the city. Jenny, played by Judy Greer — I won’t tell you who she is in relationship to the other characters (so as not to ruin the surprises) — is a sleek, imposingly tall, impossibly beautiful New Yorker… and somebody Rebeck wants us to hate. Jenny looks down her nose at Jack and Lorna’s family for having linoleum floors and ceramic plates on the wall and wine that comes in a box, and for liking trees. The trees of Cincinnati just get in the way of Jenny’s cell phone reception. This may sound like broad satire, but it’s not played that way. Jenny is the unmistakeable villain of “Dead Accounts.”
Perhaps there are some tree-haters somewhere in New York City. My personal experience with people who use “New York” as a symbol for everything that’s arrogant , greedy and oppressive is that those haters soon reveal their anti-Semitism or racism. I’m not accusing Rebeck of this; I imagine her rather as feeling jilted by the city for which she used to feel such passion, much like her character Jack. In any case, I have two suggestions for Theresa Rebeck. First, she should reread Here is New York by E.B. White. Two passages:
“….[T]he residents of Manhattan are to a large extent strangers who have pulled up stakes somewhere and come to town, seeking sanctuary or fulfillment or some greater or lesser grail….
“New York is the concentrate of art and commerce and sport and religion and entertainment and finance, bringing to a single compact arena the gladiator, the evangelist, the promoter, the actor, the trader and the merchant.”
My second suggestion: She widen her circle of New Yorkers.
At the Music Box (239 West 45th St.)
By Theresa Rebeck
Directed by Jack O’Brien; sets by David Rockwell; costumes by Catherine Zuber; lighting by David Weiner; music and sound by Mark Bennett; hair design by Tom Watson
Cast: Norbert Leo Butz (Jack), Katie Holmes (Lorna), Judy Greer (Jenny), Josh Hamilton (Phil) and Jayne Houdyshell (Barbara).Running time: two hours including one intermission