White folks may have finally found their Tyler Perry in Theresa Rebeck: Seminar, her 2011 comedy about writers and writers manqué, started strong but gave off a prescriptive, self-helpish scent by its final scene. That odor is far more pronounced in Dead Accounts, a kinda populist, faintly retrograde, somewhat pander-prone dramedy about a prodigal son (Norbert Leo Butz) returning, morally sullied, to his Cincinnati roots, after half a lifetime on big, bad Wall Street. Jack—beloved son of his ultra-Catholic mom Barbara (Jayne Houdyshell), looked up to and envied by his spinster sister Lorna (Katie Holmes)—has obviously done something very naughty back East. Crashing his childhood home, OD’ing on nostalgia, Jack is in a manic state (a Butz specialty, energetically executed here: his cokey auto-laugh sounds like an old clock radio on the fritz). Jack compulsively buys dozens of pints of his favorite local ice cream, brings home pallets of his favorite pizza, orders scads of the cheese dogs he inhaled in high school. He becomes the walking Zagat of Podunk, fobbing everyone off with Romney-esque, I-love-cheesy-grits junk food recommendations and fast-Eddie backslaps. But underneath, a deep anger is reaching a boil.
Reaching, but never rolling. Nothing ever gets cooking in Dead Accounts, because Rebeck is far more interested in executing a simple, schematic plan for gentle amusement than in plumbing the depths she hints at. She’s onto something interesting with Jack’s retro-binges, and she writes Butz some snappy dia-monologue to go with them. (He takes everything he’s given straight to the bank: Nobody carries a show on his shoulders quite as delightedly as Butz, a showboat so charisma-bedecked, he could make an actual boat show riveting.) But the binge motif, and Jack himself, and every other element of Dead Accounts is dispensed with like a sitcom sight gag, a modular “moment” to be set up, paid off, and discarded. What Rebeck has learned from her time in Hollywood, it seems to me, is that audiences are stupid enough to mistake banter for substance and sentiment for resolution. Even the simplest of themes and plot devices apparently need spelling out, usually via characters who are inexplicably slow on the uptake.
Lack of sharpness, of course, correlates to innocence, authenticity, and Americanness in Late Rebeckdom—review Smash: Season One for a primer—so ingénue duties fall to Lorna. Holmes is insanely miscast but sunnily game in the role of a ground-down never-was with body image issues and a crater where her confidence should be. She’s squired adorably by a puppy-soft Josh Hamilton as Phil, longtime admirer, first-time gentleman caller, with ego deficiencies of his own. Judy Greer, square-pegged into the role of Jack’s castrating Gothamite frostwife, manages to get some heat going with Butz, even though her part is little more than a three-by-five card: “Materialistic New York bitch-goddess.”
That’s what Dead Accounts amounts to: a stack of studio notes. (Even Jack’s crime, when revealed, has an almost eighties “high-concept” ring to it, as if the playwright had cribbed from the Brewster’s Millions sequel she’d been punching up.) Theresa Rebeck is a skilled dramatist, skilled enough to write zippily meretricious dialogue and make it look like a lot’s at stake. But nothing is. I get the feeling she just doesn’t think we’re worth the effort.
Dead Accounts runs through February 24 at the Music Box Theatre.