Playwright Theresa Rebeck was born and raised in Ohio, and from the sound of things, it may be time for her to get back to the Midwest.
As Rebeck’s “Dead Accounts” opens, Jack (Norbert Leo Butz, frenetic as ever) is sitting in the kitchen of his parents’ suburban Cincinnati home, devouring spoonfuls of Graeter’s ice cream and insisting on its superiority over any “gelato place” in Manhattan, which he has just fled. Jack has paid $1,000 for this fix of comfort food, because the store was closed and he had to bribe the fella mopping the floors to reopen. Where did Jack get this disposable cash? Look to the title of the new dark comedy from the creator of "Smash" and author of last year's stronger "Seminar" for a hint to the answer.
The ice cream episode serves as kicking off point for a series of rants about the virtues of the Buckeye State (“You know, you could eat thousands of cheese coneys for the cost of one dinner at Babbo”) and, in turn, against New York, where everyone is “too skinny” and, to Jack, the women all look unhappy. Jack, it turns out, is projecting: He’s married to one of those unhappy skinny women, and he’s run away from her and her bank officer father because he’s gotten into a financial mess that may land him in prison.
At home, Jack looks for sympathy to his sister, Lorna (Katie Holmes, with a solid performance), and mother, Barbara (the ever-reliable Jayne Houdyshell). As the prodigal son, Butz, a Tony winner for “Catch Me If You Can” and “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” here earns one more credit as an over-caffeinated oddball. Holmes’ name on the marquee may help sell tickets, but Butz is the theater craftsman, and his physical comedy is compelling, even when he’s dealing with the thin material in Rebeck’s script.
With Butz doing the mugging, Holmes, as the responsible sibling who never left home, is left to play it straight, and she does so with girl-next-door charm. She has fun in the second act, as a subplot unfolds about a decades-old missed connection with Phil, the siblings’ childhood friend (Josh Hamilton, as the Middle American everyman) but she’s hindered by strained dialogue. Explaining to Phil that she’s afraid of turning into her mother, Lorna confides: “I hate religion. It's the same thing as money. ... Religion and money are just the dumb things we use to plug up the hole in our hearts because we’re so afraid of dying.” She has more success with a rant directed at the banking industry, which won over the audience at a recent press preview.
Judy Greer (the scorned wife of “The Descendants”) has a turn as Jack’s icy estranged wife, who thumbs her nose at linoleum and boxed wine, and embodies everything the playwright seems to hold against city life.
New Yorkers love to laugh at their eccentricities, and Rebeck provides plenty of fodder. But what starts out as a good-humored exploration of stereotypes veers off quickly into a condemnation of Gotham: you can make money here, and the food is good, but if it’s truth your looking for, you need small-town values and the strength of your family. “Dead Accounts” offers little by way of an ending, other than a heavy-handed revelation by scenic designer David Rockwell that seems designed to suggest life is better in suburbia. I’m not so convinced, but Rebeck’s position is pretty clear.
“Dead Accounts,” at the Music Box Theatre, 239 W. 45th St., through Feb. 24, 2013. Tickets, $62-$129. Visit Telecharge.com or call 212-239-6200.