I still don’t know what Arbor Day had to do with it. Dead Accounts, Theresa Rebeck’s latest play currently in performances at the Music Box Theater, contains a haphazard hodgepodge of themes, ideas and motifs that are scattered throughout the show, including but not limited to, Catholicism, capitalism, family ties and last, but not least, a fond reminiscence about planting trees on Arbor Day.
Directed by Jack O’Brien, Dead Accounts follows the prodigal son, financial golden boy Jack (Norbert Leo Butz), who returns to his family home in Ohio from New York for an unannounced visit. Possessed with a frantic, unexplainable energy, Jack seems to be three people trapped in one body. Buying eight pizzas for five people, bringing seven tubs of ice cream into the kitchen for two people to eat, and seemingly unable to sit still for more than five seconds at a time, Jack is clearly not a comfortable man. He is hiding something. (Hint: It has to do with the play’s title.)
Jack joins his sister Lorna (Katie Holmes), who, following a divorce, lives with her parents to help take care for their ailing father. Her mother, played by the unflappable character actress Jayne Houdyshell, is a staunch Catholic who refuses to give her husband painkillers while he passes kidney stones. They are also visited by Jack’s childhood friend Phil (Josh Hamilton), who nurses a decades-old crush on Lorna, as well as Jack’s soon-to-be ex-wife Jenny (a woefully miscast Judy Greer).
As the family reunites and the real reason behind Jack’s impromptu visit comes to light, they debate and discuss various topics, including the ethics of Wall Street, penalties for crime, and faith in a higher power or other human beings. Each of these ideas is intriguing and one wishes for further elaboration or clarification on them, but we never receive it.
The rock of this show is Butz, who brings such maniac energy to the role of Jack, I found myself thinking of Robert Downey Jr., another actor known for giving hyperkinetic performances. Butz does his best to bring a cerebral authenticity to Jack, as well as justification for Jack’s choices and actions, both of which are questionable, to say the least. Butz is a skilled comedian, and his impeccable timing, which was evident in Catch Me If You Can and Is He Dead? is on display here, whether he is mugging for the audience by squashing his Buddha belly against a glass door or embarking on an Act Two rant about the morality of working for a financial institution.
Playing Jack’s adoring, frumpy younger sister, Holmes gives a disappointingly over-affected performance. She appears uneasy onstage, gesticulating far too frequently and shouting many of her lines in a hoarse, strained voice. For a character apparently written to evoke sympathy, she is extremely whiny and, when she bursts into a furiously-written rant at Jenny about her family’s condition, none of her anger seems authentic or justified. In comparison to the fully-formed Jack, I found it frustrating that the character of Lorna was so incompletely formed; aside from a few comments about her own love life, she seemed to only exist onstage to take care of other people and respond their needs or desires. And the constant comments about her diet and her weight were also aggravating, as Holmes is a slight, slender woman.
Houdyshell, always a comedic joy to witness, is clearly having a fine time as the unruffled matriarch of the family who greatly enjoys interrupting people. She received frequent laughs at her calm response of, “I know dear,” response to Homes’ frustrated hisses of, “Mom, I’m on the phone!” Her love for her children is evident, but her calm acceptance of her son’s less-than-ethical actions is a bit questionable.
Clad in black, with a sleek ponytail and high heels, Greer plays Jack’s East Coast, wealthy, soon-to-be ex-wife Jenny, but she does not give a convincing performance. Greer, known for her solid supporting roles as the best friend of the love interest in romantic comedies, is simply too sweet to believably depict such a materialistic, cold-hearted woman. Her voice alone sounds too kind, and she never seems comfortable in the role. Josh Hamilton gives a solid, if unremarkable performance as the Good Guy who pines for Holmes’ Lorna. Other than that, he doesn’t do much else.
Packed with comparisons of New York to the Midwest, Dead Accounts landed some solid laughs from the New York-based audience but one wonders what tourists will think of the inside jokes. Unfortunately, those are the only aspect of the show that is communicated clearly. I left the theater confused and unfulfilled, wondering what it was Rebeck was trying to say with this show. Was it a condemnation of Wall Street and the financial crisis? A commentary on the religious-based voting in the country? A call to action in response to Occupy Wall Street and the gross discrepancy of wealth? A hopeful prediction of financial reform? I am not sure, and I still don’t know what Arbor Day had to do with it either.