a theatre, film & pop culture review
The Tony Award is not good enough; no, Norbert Leo Butz deserves the Broadway equivalent of the Medal of Honor. His hyper-physical, depths-digging performance in Dead Accounts is akin to Daniel Day-Lewis’s masterwork in Lincoln, only Day-Lewis had one of the best playwright-screenwriters and directors of our time to support his phenomenal performance.
Hyperbole, you say? Well, let’s talk about the play — if you can call it that — for a minute. Though, honestly, there isn’t much to say about Rebeck’s so-called comedy that hasn’t already been said. Jack’s (Butz) a cocksure NYC banker who’s mysteriously returned home to the good ol’ Midwest – which, by the way, he never thought was so good until now. He barrels into his childhood kitchen with a laughable number of pints of the Best Ice Cream EVER! and proceeds to ravenously consume said creamy frozen goodness while rhapsodically regaling his wary, but loving sister (Katie Holmes) with a laundry list of ways that middle America, specifically Cincinnati, trumps New York: Graeter’s ice cream! Cheese Coneys! Nature! (Yes, everything is that emphatic!) One imagines this diatribe on the superior mores of the Midwest played to great big laughs and knowing smirks at the Cincinnati Playhouse last winter, where the commissioned play premiered.
One also suspects that Rebeck was purposefully ingratiating herself with her original audience, hence her entire lack of effort in developing any kind of character or focus of story. Jack ran away from Wall Street — and his wife (Judy Greer) who caught him — because he did something very bad (not quite Madoff-level, but you get the idea), and the result is a wandering rumination of everything from fiscal responsibility to materialism to faith (What? Where’d that come from?) to poetic ramblings about the general wonderfulness of trees. The tone is just as erratic: light and breezy, playing for easy laughs and then, suddenly and shamefully, sermonizing.
The game cast strives, hard, to find a balance, while also desperately grasping for the bits of dialogue with any worth, but their efforts are largely futile. Holmes works hard with what little she’s given: Gorgeous and gazelle-like with a long, thin frame, references to her character Lorna’s spinsterhood and her insistent need to be on a diet are hugely laughable, and she flounders in attempts to find (non-existent) layers in her character. But she has a nice sibling camaraderie with Butz, and also a down-to-earth — dare I say Midwestern? She is from Ohio — charm that deems her largely likable even whilst neck veins bulge from the strain of not knowing how to project (as in her 2009 Broadway debut All My Sons, the director should be blamed for not engaging a vocal coach).
Making the most of their slivers of a characters, Josh Hamilton is sweetly bungling as her love interest, Phil, and Jayne Houdyshell, as Jack and Lorna’s mom, has a sharply realized moment of understanding when she discovers her icy daughter-in-law for who she really is. Played by Judy Greer, Jack’s wife Jenny is a cold, insignificant addition, and the comic actress is vastly underutilized here in this largely unfunny role (then again, this “comedy” isn’t all that funny in general). And though I googled the shit out of this, Greer is apparently not pregnant either, though you’d think she was thanks to the super-unflattering black mourning drape she dons thanks to costumer Catherine Zuber.
But Butz is the star of this largely one-man show and he gives a muscular, whirlwind of a performance, exuding that smarmy charm that he’s so good at, and bouncing and thrashing about the stage like a stockbroker on speed. While always a joy to watch, there’s that terrible twisting in your gut: why is Butz expending such energy and resources here? Is this really all we have to offer one of our very finest stage actors? Even director Jack O’Brien seems to know Butz is better than anything else on stage: he lets the actor run wild, never bothering to reign him in (except during the ludicrous scene changes apparently ripped directly from American Horror Story: Mark Bennett mixes familiar standards with ominous crackles while David Weiner moodily turns down the lights and the cast moves about like the Stepford family. It’s pretentious and out of place in Rebeck’s pseudo-comedy).
When talk-show host Kathie Lee Gifford’s bland musical offering just a few blocks south has more obvious effort put into it, you know you’re seeing the worst that Broadway has to offer. Dead Accounts is a first draft at best. At worst, it’s an obscenely offensive waste of a Broadway stage, ticketholders’ money and tremendous acting talent. I’ve seen a lot of bad theatre in my time, some of which I’ve even enjoyed (a lot), so please believe me when I say this: the producers should be ashamed of themselves.