Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - November 29, 2012
Dead Accounts by Theresa Rebeck. Directed by Jack O’Brien. Scenic design by David Rockwell. Costume design by Catherine Zuber. Lighting design by David Weiner. Composition/sound design by Mark Bennett. Hair design by Tom Watson. Cast: Norbert Leo Butz, Katie Holmes, with Judy Greer, Josh Hamilton, and Jayne Houdyshell.
This would, admittedly, be less of a problem if Rebeck offered more of substance to chew on during the two hours her comedy-styled play runs. But despite focusing primarily on the potentially weighty and always hilarious and insightful topics of kidney stones, hospitalization, divorce, and grand larceny–level embezzlement, depth is in short supply. Both the playwright and her director, Jack O'Brien, are content with skirting around the edges of their potential-laden idea, rather than doing the extra work necessary to prove why this fractured morality tale is worth telling in this way.
Its relevance, at least, is evident. With its central character being Jack (Norbert Leo Butz), a New York banker who's returned to his childhood Cincinnati home a little too flush with earnings, this is clearly an "us-versus-them" tale to which any victim, towering or tiny, of the Great Recession should be able to relate.
Ah, but who is the "us" and who is the "them"? Jack insists he doesn't feel like a part of the East Coast establishment, and that he's far more spiritually connected to his Ohioan roots, something neither his sister Lorna (Katie Holmes), mother Barbara (Jayne Houdyshell), nor childhood friend Phil (Josh Hamilton) necessarily believes. Not least because Jack doesn't form bonds easily, as the curious absence of his wife, to say nothing of his tendency to joke about killing her, so amply demonstrates.
Rest assured, however, that pondering whether Jack did or didn't off his socialite better half is not worth fretting about. Rebeck answers that definitively by the end of Act I, along with the matters of why Jack showed up in Cincinnati in the middle of the night, why no one knows where he is, and why he's been throwing around more money than a malfunctioning ATM. (Though given the show's title, the particulars are not terribly tough to guess.)
When this manages to be entertaining — which it doesn't often — it's because of the cast's committed comic performances. Butz and Holmes make a fine tag team for most scenes, his caffeinated unrest an appealing contrast to her intentionally uptight "straight man" demeanor that gradually morphs into something freer and funnier as her brother's impact on her makes itself increasingly visible. You don't doubt that the events you're witnessing are the culmination of decades of disagreement between the two; this is the most crucial relationship in the play, and Butz and Holmes get it right.
Houdyshell is just as strong as Barbara, infusing the role with a natural maternal grace, a firm religious devotion that never drifts into fanaticism (as the writing could easily encourage), and sharp line readings that strain in neither outlining Barbara's feelings nor humanizing her obligatory ethical guidepost. Both Hamilton and Judy Greer, who completes the cast as a woman who knows more than Jack would like about his illicit activities, essay their roles effectively, but more with professionalism than ingenuity.
They have a couple of excellent role models in that regard. O'Brien has shown himself capable of wrangling enormous musicals (Hairspray) and plays (The Coast of Utopia) down to human size, but can't effect the reverse magic here: Despite unleashing a few flourishes with David Rockwell cozy kitchen set and David Weiner's lights, he struggles throughout to find a deeper theatricality in this closed-down tale. He's able to help the actors land (most of) their laughs, but he imparts no sense of overarching shape or importance.
As for Rebeck, one sympathizes with her desire to find an innovative way to examine the recent American financial crisis, and reducing the conflict between the Big Bankers and the Little People to a literal "east meets Midwest" fable is not a bad solution in theory. But her reluctance to let the story tell itself, and to create characters capable of conveying those messages without overt proselytizing, keeps the play from being all it could be. And once the clichés start hitting in force, which they do by the middle of the first act, it becomes clear it's not likely to be very much.
A lot of people out there, humbled and hurting by what's happened in recent years to their investments and their once-plentiful dreams of getting ahead, are still looking for artistic explanations of why it happened and what can be done about it. Perhaps Rebeck deserves some credit for her attempt to address and allay those concerns in a way that at least pays lip service to a more shaded morality than politicians in the just-concluded election cycle generally managed. But the result really ought to live and breathe, and not settle for being as moribund as Dead Accounts too frequently does.