January 5, 2013

Why Death Came Early for "Dead Accounts"

Dead Accounts is playing its final performance tomorrow, closing three months before it had planned. I’m writing about it at this late date because I want to make the argument that the production’s high-profile Hollywood émigré Katie Holmes shouldn’t be blamed for the aborted run.  

Instead, the fault should fall fully on its playwright Theresa Rebeck. Which makes me also want to raise the question whether Rebeck's play making abilities may be less than we've thought they were. Cause let’s not mince words: Dead Accounts is a hot mess. And this isn’t the first time that description could be applied to a Rebeck project.

Over the past five years, she’s had six major productions open in New York. Three of them have been on Broadway, making Rebeck one of the few female playwrights whose work is regularly done there. But during that same period, she’s also churned out at least two novels, a steady flow of magazine pieces, op-ed articles and blog posts, plus scripts for the TV series “Canterbury’s Law” and “Smash.”

While I applaud—and maybe even envy—that kind of productivity, it can also result in work that’s shallow and desultory. Which has been the case with several of the Rebeck plays I’ve seen (click here to read my review of the previous one).  It may also explain why Rebeck has been replaced as executive producer for the second season of “Smash” which starts up again next month.

The sad thing about Dead Accounts is that Rebeck seems to have tried to go deeper.  The plot centers around Jack, a New York banker who cooks up a scheme to siphon off the money held in inactive, or dead, accounts.  He figures that since no one is using it, he might as well spend it. 

The play opens after suspicions have arisen and Jack has fled to his boyhood home in Cincinnati where his mother is struggling to cope with an ill and bedridden husband and his thirtysomething sister is trying to figure out what to do with her aimless life.

Rebeck seems to want to say something serious about American values in this second decade of the new millennium but her ADHD tendencies make it difficult for her to focus.  The play has long rants about money, religion, ice cream, trees and the superficialities of New Yorkers.

Snappy, joke-riddled dialog has always been Rebeck’s strong suit and she does get in a few zingers but she stumbles when she ventures into heavier terrain. The talk just circles around and around until it runs out of steam. 

When the lights went off signaling the end of the show, you could feel the confusion rippling through the audience at the performance my husband K and I attended. None of us could figure out what the hell had happened.

That, again, is not the fault of the cast, which, in addition to Holmes, includes stage pros Norbert Leo Butz, Josh Hamilton and Jayne Houdyshell. Under the direction of Jack O’Brien, another old Broadway hand, they all work hard. Too hard.  

Butz, in particular, summons up near-manic energy to give Jack some semblance of believability and almost pulls it off (click here for a Q&A with him). Houdyshell provides her usual emotional ballast and Holmes is fully committed to her role.  

The camaraderie the actors feel for one another is apparent onstage and offK and I spotted them having dinner at a Broadway hangout and they looked to be totally enjoying one another.  

They've also protectively circled the wagons around Holmes, often doing group interviews to make it harder for journalists to grill her about her recent divorce from Tom Cruise (click here to read one of those group sessions).

Of course the curiosity about Holmes, making her first professional appearance since the breakup, was suppose to help draw audiences in. But audiences are often smarter than they're given credited for being. And in this case they were unwilling to shell out money just to celebrity gawk. Or to support a playwright whose bark is proving to be bigger than her ability to create work with bite. 


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