Norbert Leo Butz lights up the opening scenes of Theresa Rebeck’s new Broadway play, Dead Accounts, as explosively as John Malkovich, 25 years ago, ignited the start of Lanford Wilson’s Burn This. Jack, Butz’s character, has returned to his hometown, Cincinnati, from New York, where he works for a high-powered bank. He sits around his parents’ kitchen table, devouring ice cream and spewing the f-word in the direction of his sister Lorna, played by Katie Holmes.
Rebeck’s two-act play, in which Jack has appropriated $27m from his bank’s dead accounts and fights with Jenny, his estranged wife, over its disposition, compels us less for the way it works its plot, which is uninterestingly unresolved, than for the occasion it furnishes for an ensemble of first-rate actors to flaunt their wares.
Butz and Jack O’Brien, the production’s director, have collaborated memorably before on musicals. Here Butz must rely on words rather than music and dance to convey galvanic emotion, and he takes full advantage. Rebeck furnishes him with plenty of reasons to talk tough. He uses drugs, and his father, kept offstage, suffers from a Job-like array of illnesses while being tended by Barbara, his pious Roman Catholic wife.
As the only member of a six-child family who has stayed at home and never married, Holmes’s Lorna must put up with Jack’s rants. Holmes excels at that under-appreciated aspect of an actor’s art, listening. The role utilises aspects of her autobiography: childhood in Ohio, Catholic upbringing. When Lorna muses on the subject of divorce, the audience chortles knowingly. It almost purrs when she makes her final exit by unbinding her ponytail and tossing her tresses come-hitheringly at Phil, a love interest beautifully played by Josh Hamilton. Rebeck even gives Lorna a big speech in which small-town America rages at Wall Street banks.
Dead Accounts falters when Jenny, a snooty bitch portrayed by Judy Greer, shows up from Manhattan to confront Jack; marital bickering also nearly brought down the first season of Smash, a TV drama created by Rebeck that is set behind the scenes of a Broadway musical. But at evening’s end, the marvellously sensitive performer Jayne Houdyshell, as Jack and Lorna’s mother, gives a slow-burn reaction across the kitchen table that demonstrates just how expertly Rebeck has constructed her compelling story of family reckoning.