Entertainment » Theatre

Dead Accounts

by Jonathan Leaf
Contributor
Sunday Dec 9, 2012
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Katie Holmes and Norbert Leo Butz
Katie Holmes and Norbert Leo Butz  (Source:Joan Marcus)

There’s so much that’s excellent in Theresa Rebeck’s new play "Dead Accounts" that you find yourself wishing it were better.

It’s a bit like a would-be fashion model with the face of a young Lauren Bacall who can never smile because her teeth are black and rotting. The flaws stand out more sharply because there’s so much to like and admire.

The play’s first two-thirds are funny, engaging, witty, lively and suspenseful. Then this show about a New York banker and embezzler (Norbert Leo Butz) who returns to his parents’ house in Cincinnati, mostly goes off the rails, and the audience responds to the conclusion with applause that’s more polite than enthusiastic.

Rebeck writes very fast. This is her second Broadway play of the year, following up on the much better "Seminar," and she has knocked these off even as she created and served as the head writer for the appealing TV show "Smash." That’s the eleventh TV show that she’s written for in her career.

These go along with more than 20 produced full-length plays, five movies, some nonfiction and at least one novel.

What’s remarkable is how much of it displays her great gifts for creating amusing, distinctive and recognizable characters and for capturing the patterns of real speech. The danger, of course, in such a prolific author is that not everything is of the same high quality.

That problem plagues "Dead Accounts."

It’s not hard to tell that Rebeck made up the play’s plot as she went along, and ideas are picked up and discarded throughout. Thus, Butz’s character seems at first to be acting in the manic phase of biploar disorder -- spending money wildly, talking a mile per minute. But then this theme is tossed away without explanation, as is his initial penchant for speaking like one of Mamet’s salesmen characters.

One minute the play seems to be a satire, then a romantic comedy, then an indictment of contemporary capitalism and finally it’s a story of redemption involving man’s renewed communion with nature.

Likewise, the play’s main storyline is never fully explained. Is Butz about to be arrested for his crimes? Does the bank he works for wish to sweep them under the rug? None of this is ever really made clear.

One minute the play seems to be a satire, then a romantic comedy, then an indictment of contemporary capitalism and finally it’s a story of redemption involving man’s renewed communion with nature.

It can’t make up its mind what it is.

Even the age of one of the characters hasn’t been thought out. A surprisingly excellent Katie Holmes, playing Butz’s neurotic, housebound sister, is said in one scene to have planted a tree 25 years ago when she was just six. This would make her 31 years old. But in another scene we learn that 20 years ago she was asked out on a date as a high school senior.

Wouldn’t that make her 37 or 38?

Still, there are plenty of amusing bits in director Jack O’Brien’s deft production, which is aided by the selection of all but one of the play’s five cast members.

Both Butz and Katie Holmes really are the products of large Catholic families from the Midwest, and playing brother and sister of a brood of six (the other four of whom are unseen) sometime churchgoers in Ohio, they are absolutely in their element. Good, too, are Josh Hamilton as Holmes’ love interest and Jane Houdyshell as the family’s batty and devout matriarch.

Only a no longer slim Judy Greer, wildly miscast as a supposedly lithe Easterner, fails to ring true as her own Michigander accent can be distinctly heard from her first appearance on stage.

"Dead Accounts" runs through Feb. 24 at the Music Box Theater, 239 West 45th Street. For tickets and info, call 800-432-7250 or go to http://www.deadaccountsonbroadway.com/

Jonathan Leaf is a playwright and journalist living in New York.

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