Written by Theresa Rebeck
Composition by Mark Bennett
Directed by Jack O’Brien
Location: Music Box Theater 239 W 45th Street New York, NY 10036 212-239-6200 or 800-432-7250
Set Designer: David Rockwell, Lighting: David Weiner;, Costumes: Catherine Zuber, Sound Design: Mark Bennett
Starring Norbert Leo Butz, Katie Holmes, Judy Greer, Josh Hamilton, Jayne Houdyshell
In her earlier play Mauritius, playwright Theresa Rebeck showed a young gamine attracting the attention of arms dealers and thugs by gaining possession of a valuable postage stamp. A similar premise animates her newest effort, and the same end-on-a-cliffhanger scene structure is employed to move the plot along. In this case, though, the protagonist’s power grab is used to fuel comic, rather than darkly dramatic, suspense.
Prodigal son Jack (Norbert Leo Butz) returns unannounced to his family home in Cincinnati. Having spent most of his adult life in Manhattan’s fast-paced financial world, Jack exults in his rediscovery of treelined streets and local ice cream. His sister Lorna, (Katie Holmes), doesn’t quite share his euphoria. She’s happy to see him, but surprised by his unexpected arrival and worried that he may be running from some kind of trouble in New York. Lorna has her own problems, having had to move back home after the recession has made it impossible to support herself. Jack and Lorna’s staunchly Catholic mom Barbara (Jane Houdyshell) loves her kids, but is mostly occupied with caring for her husband (offstage), who suffers from painful kidney stones. Also on hand is Phil (Josh Hamilton) an old friend who is goaded by Jack into acting on his long-suppressed crush on Lorna.
Everyone notices Jack’s flamboyant behavior and his sudden preponderance of cash. Jack evades their questions until, finally, he can no longer bear lying to his family. He finally confesses that he and his old-money wife Jenny (Judy Greer) are splitting up. Oh, and one more thing: Jack has embezzled 27 million dollars from the bank where he works. The loot comes from unclaimed assets belonging to people who have died or otherwise abandoned their financial property. Known in bank jargon as “dead accounts,” these entities go largely ignored by upper management and Jack’s chicanery flies under the bank’s radar. Jenny, however, is very interested in the missing money. Standing out like a sore thumb in her designer clothes, she struts into the Cincinnati house to reckon with Jack. Her father, who owns the bank, can make Jack’s infraction go away. After all, 27 million isn’t all that significant in an era where billions sometimes go missing. If Jack refuses to play ball, though, Daddy will see to it that he goes to prison. Jack, of course, doesn’t fold easily. He believes he and Jenny can still make their marriage work, and with the hidden treasure as bait he attempts to lure her back.
So how do all these issues resolve? Unfortunately, Accounts offers little in the way of a satisfying payoff. Nor is it one of those plays (John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt for example) in which an ambiguous ending is designed to spark post-show conversation. Jack doesn’t decide on a plan of action or solidify the new person he will become after this life-altering experience. Areas of the story go unexplored. Jack’s offstage father, for example, functions largely as a device: Barbara is easily drawn offstage by the need to care for her husband. Little is revealed about Jack’s history with his dad, and he never heads upstairs to see the old man (although he does send up some potent pain killers). The subtext here is hard to read. Is it guilt over his malfeasance that makes Jack unable to look his father in the eye? Is there unfinished business between the strict patriarch and the rebellious youth?
Luckily, there are enough comic beats and engaging characters here to give the evening some buoyancy. The contrast between Midwestern and East Coast cultures proves a rich vein of humor and Rebeck mines it to great effect. The impact of Jack’s manic demeanor on the people around him also results in a some delightful seriocomic exchanges, particularly in a masterfully written scene in which Jack and Jenny try to negotiate their relationship. Butz throws himself into the role with an irresistible blend of mischief and vulnerability. Houdyshell, in her understated way, proves an apt foil for him. She exerts tremendous power on stage, and her solid stoicism provides Butz with a solid force to push against. Likewise Hamilton exudes a quiet guy-next-door likability that compliments Butz’s histrionics. The other half of the supporting cast is less successful. Holmes is emotionally believable, but struggles vocally. Greer is charismatic, but doesn’t move or speak with the entitled prowess of a robber baron’s daughter.
The action takes place entirely in Barbara’s kitchen, and designer David Rockwell captures the everyday wholesomeness of a heartland homestead. Catherine Zuber’s costumes neatly embody the sharp differences between style-conscious New Yorkers and mall-shopping suburbanites. David Weiner’s lighting evokes the bright sun and fresh air of an Ohio autumn. Director Jack O’Brien finds the right pace, letting the plot unfold at a clip that feels natural. Despite the director and design team’s best efforts, though, the show feels like a strong beginning rather than an entire journey.
Trimmed to an hour, the script would actually be a near-perfect pilot episode for a TV show (like many of today’s playwrights, Rebeck doubles as a television writer and producer). Audiences, charmed and exasperated by Jack’s antics, and wondering what will happen next, would likely tune in to see how the story develops. In its present form, its loose threads and unresolved conflicts leave Dead Accounts feeling incomplete.