Set in the kitchen of a middle-class Cincinnati home, Dead Accounts, the new play by Theresa Rebeck, centers on a Midwestern family wrestling with the portent of death, their questionable life choices, impending divorce, evolving romantic love and the embezzlement of $27 million from dead people’s forgotten bank accounts. Money and religion are key components of a debate on what place morality, loyalty and integrity have in today’s world, which the play fuels by juxtaposing the religious mindset of the Midwest with the debauched one of New York.
Rebeck has an enviable resume (Seminar, TV’s Smash) and it’s clear that she knows how to write, but, at least in this play, whatever message she is trying to convey is hidden in a haystack of caricatures and the punchline-heavy monologues they deliver. Jack (Norbert Leo Butz) is the beloved prodigal son we’ve seen a hundred times before — the attractive, successful life and soul of the family who leaves for bigger and better things. Lorna (Katie Holmes) is the thirty-something younger sister who has moved back into her parents’ house, reluctantly taking on the role of their caretaker, and who is slowly morphing into her mother. Jenny (Judy Greer), Jack’s estranged wife who flies in from New York to hunt down both him and the money he has embezzled, is the stereotypical rich, rude, and cold Manhattan bitch who couldn’t possibly conceive of life outside of Manhattan.
The play opens with siblings Jack and Lorna sitting at the kitchen table in the wee hours of the morning. Jack has returned unexpectedly from New York, and while he ecstatically devours his favourite ice cream he regales Lorna with tales of his East Coast experience, bemoaning what he sees as the pretentiousness of New York life and the absence of codes of conduct amongst the city’s inhabitants. (It’s a brave play, by the way, that questions the moral fiber of the city in which it opens and subjects it to ridicule, even if it does have a point).
This in turn leads to a wider discussion about moral behavior, with Jack’s commandeering of the ice cream spurring the critique. When he went to the store it was closed, but he offered the cleaner inside $1,000 to open up shop and let him take several pints of his favorite flavors. Lorna insists he bribed the cleaner, while Jack insists he merely helped the cleaner’s economy. This starts the main theme of the play: are the rules of moral behavior absolute as per religious edict or can they be manipulated depending on both the likelihood of getting caught and on where you are geographically located at the time of action? In other words, are people in the Midwest really as bothered about people’s misdeeds compared to those on the East Coast?
The initial interplay is well commanded by both actors and director Jack O’Brien clearly has an adept cast to work with. Butz has excellent command of his physical, emotional, and vocal abilities, which he brings to this role with glee while just about managing to prevent his character from crossing from nervy and engaging storyteller over to self-absorbed spotlight-hogging son. Holmes is adorable in much the same way she has been in the majority of her roles to date. She is really not a bad stage actress at all and could be quite a Broadway force one day if she stretches herself. However, her delivery as Lorna wavers at times between adult woman and adolescent, causing you to question her age until you’re given the variables through some helpful exposition.
Phil (Josh Hamilton), Jack’s childhood friend who has long been in love with Lorna, provides a good balance for the mayhem in the family home, and Judy Greer is as capable as she always has been in films, but her lack of vocal energy indicates her inexperience onstage. It’s Jayne Houdyshell, however, who plays matriarch Barbara, who has the best stage chops of the lot. Her typical, critical, passive-aggressive performance is entirely genuine and believable throughout.
The problem with the play is that it strives for what is naturalistic and true but mixes it with jokes that are too obvious (‘If you don’t do this, Jack, you will curse the day you ever laid eyes on me’ — ‘I already do.’), too stereotyped (box wine anyone?), and lines that are utterly unbelievable. For example, Jenny, while disparaging people’s taste in the Midwest on the phone to her lawyer (and possible lover), tells him in reference to the linoleum covering the kitchen floor that ‘Linoleum is not a myth,’ and she does so with such total honesty so as to suggest that people truly believe its existence is fantasy. Yet when you compare this to the marvelously enthralling exchange between Jenny and Jack as they dissect their relationship and its failure, you’re left wondering what you’re supposed to be watching. The arc of it all is not clear. Phil doesn’t seem to have any real role other than to add some dimension to Lorna’s character, and Jenny only seems to serve as the catalyst who exposes Jack’s embezzlement secret.
Ultimately, however, the biggest flaw in the play is that none of these big ideas of death, love, betrayal, and morality, are explored with any depth. At one point an emotional Lorna, dealing with her hospitalized father, shouts that real problems, like death, have to be dealt with. ‘Death is coming here!’ but then it’s made light of. In a blinding moment of truth wonderfully emoted by Holmes, Lorna cries out about where her life is going. ‘I’m becoming my Mother,’ she says. ‘Don’t you think I know that?’ — but then it’s made light of.
Additionally, characters, their motivations, and answers to the play’s questions are neither particularly clear nor ever explained. Is Jack a drug addict as is suggested through his nervy delivery and constant craving for junk food, which he buys in bulk during the play and encourages others, including the dieting Lorna, to ingest? Are we witnessing the impact that an overstimulating city like New York has on a man who is, and has always been according to his family, simply ‘highly strung’?
It’s meaty fodder which the talented cast, if given the option, could have delivered with considerable aplomb. Instead, we are teased for two long hours and left disappointed in the fact that nothing actually seems to happen.