It isn't fair to walk into Dead Accounts thinking about Tom Cruise, but it's not surprising. Casting is not an accidental art, so it's safe to say that any show featuring the recently de-Cruised, post-Scientology, newly-emerged-from-the-chrysalis Katie Holmes will elicit some preconceived notions. Of Everygirl Joey Potter, Holmes' tomboy character from Dawson's Creek; the sullen punk twenty-something in Pieces of April; Oprah's couch. When the casting is such, it all comes bundled together in a theatergoer's mind with what they are about to see onstage.
My preconceived notion: Katie Holmes can act. That she's capable of nuance and subtlety, range of emotion, modulation of voice, and moments of quiet. It might not have been fair for me to have walked into Dead Accounts thinking I'd get that—but it is unfair of Dead Accounts to let her go onstage without it.
This sounds like a criticism of Holmes, and also like she is the linchpin of the show. Neither is the case. Dead Accounts has a terrific ensemble cast with standout performances from Broadway's Norbert Leo Butz and Jayne Houdyshell, as well as Judy Greer (Arrested Development), who is doing the absolute most with what she's been given. But Holmes is the bait—there is no denying that any show featuring her during her first big return to the public spotlight is trading on her celebrity. In exchange for that, Dead Accounts owes her the safety of good direction and a solid script.
Alas, both are lacking.
Playwright Theresa Rebeck's (last season's Seminar, Smash) script starts out with great promise, with the fantastic Butz delivering a near-soliloquy on the splendors of Cincinnati ice cream. It is late at night, and he's just arrived at his family home unexpectedly from New York. We learn--way too late in the meandering exposition, but eventually--that Butz's Jack has fled New York to Ohio because he's embezzled $27 million from the bank of his employ, from the "dead accounts" of the show's title. (Were they given as much attention in the play as trees, air, and ice cream, the show would be far more edifying). His cold, moneyed wife Jenny (Greer, in a cheap-looking black suit no snotty NYC socialite would deign to don, an opportunity for chicness lost.) has chased him down looking for a divorce and her half of the money. His mother Barbara (Houdyshell) frets about Jack's ill (and unseen) father while rambling in the kitchen about church, meanwhile his dowdy sister Lorna (Holmes) alternately rolls her eyes, sighs dramatically, and screeches impatiently at her exasperating, manic-pixie brother.
For this production's Lorna, dowdiness is implied with cheap jeans, K-Mart sweaters layered over cutesy Michael Stars-esque tops, and Holmes' long hair twisted messily into an unkempt bun instead of down. There are numerous references to her diet and how she thinks she's fat, which are so ridiculous when spoken by such a statuesque actress that I was genuinely unsure for half the first act if Holmes was playing a whiny teenager. While we are left to wonder on paper if Lorna is actually beautiful, we should not be asked to question that Holmes is.
Josh Hamilton (The Coast of Utopia) rounds out the cast as Jack's affable, milquetoasty hometown friend Phil. It's no spoiler to reveal that Holmes and Hamilton eventually fumble their way together after years of mutual pining, which makes for a warm moment when Holmes lets her hair fall down perfectly as they leave together (if only because it can).
Rebeck ultimately treats "New York," land of superficial trinkets, gluttonous indulgences and easy Brooklyn jokes, like a character in the play. (Note: New Yorkers will always laugh at a Brooklyn joke, but that doesn't mean you should write one). Similarly, "Beautiful Pure Not-New York, With Trees" is the foil.
If I've barely mentioned money and death—the play's true themes, manifested in Jack's illicit fortune and his dying father—it is because they take a back seat entirely to the redemptive power of trees, which are spoken of regularly. It's a pity. Two of the show's best moments are Barbara's quiet expression of terror at losing her husband, and an inspired rant from Lorna against banks (which sparked applause from the audience the day I attended), but neither are explored for depth. There are points made about money: a Mayflower-era teapot doesn't mean as much as love! Two million dollars won't bribe your mother! But they are jumbled, and nothing comes close to the kind of excavation Jack's financial scam (and the mania behind it) deserves. His father is dying and he can't bear to see him…but let's not explore that further, someone else is talking about a tree again!
Director Jack O'Brien does a good job of working the kitchen—it's a one room set (by David Rockwell), all lovely, warm and homey— and keeps his actors actively using the space, mining unnoticed corners to reveal a wealth of detail. (A scene where Jenny begins turning over dishes to look for brand labels is an inspired touch.) But I cannot forgive him, or the production, for wasting Katie Holmes, whose character is unnecessarily one-note—a note between a whine and a screech. We hear in an aside from Jack that she has escaped a bad relationship, but learn nothing more about it. O'Brien may have been too in love with the brilliant and deserving Butz to notice Holmes, and to a lesser extent, Hamilton, were being left out to dry. But the rest of us did.
And if I may nitpick: I had to flip to the program to see the play was set in the present, as the utter absence of technology was hard to ignore.
Rebeck clearly has a lot to say, and in Dead Accounts she begins saying a lot. But to borrow her metaphor: Where she could have grown a full, strong tree with many limbs to climb, she instead has planted a few feeble saplings, bending limply in the wind. There is so much that could have sprouted proudly from that chip on her shoulder. ("You're one of them now." "New York made him different.")
Sadly, none of it had any real chance to flower.