Even the best theater craftspersons can't make something from nothing, but give them at least a smattering of palpable elements to work with and it's startling what wonders they perform.
That goes a long way towards explaining the frequently entertaining play director Jack O'Brien and actors Norbert Leo Butz, Katie Holmes. Jayne Houdyshell, Josh Hamilton and Judy Greer have made of Theresa Rebeck's Dead Accounts, at the Music Box.
Rebeck's last Broadway offering was the phony Seminar. Smash, the woebegone NBC television series she created, is soon to have a second season but with her excused from weekly demands. Judging by other work as well, she's a highly overrated playwright receiving commissions regularly, according to the theatrical by-law that commissions must inevitably engender more commissions, whether or not they're warranted.
Wouldn't you know that Dead Accounts began its journey as one of those commissions, this one from Cincinnati's Playhouse in the Park? Powers there wanted a play dealing with local issues. Rebeck has obliged with something too long for what she achieves and lacking a satisfying conclusion.
That's where O'Brien and company -- including set designer David Rockwell, who supplies a typical middle-class kitchen with upstage tree-covered yard peeking through -- come in and take over like the kind of home-improvement mavens populating higher-numbered TV channels.
Rebeck's been quoted as saying she thought about her Cincinnati ex-pat status (she lives in Brooklyn) and how it's made her a neither/nor citizen. As a result, she came up with banker Jack (Butz), who's discovered scarfing down ice cream with sister Lorna (Holmes) on the start of an unannounced visit to his abandoned birthplace. He might be there to help mom Barbara (Houdyshell) with his ailing (unseen) father -- but not really, Avoiding all requests to see the old man, he spends time with childhood pal Phil (Hamilton) as he throws around money. He's spent $1,000 on the ice cream supply alone. The definite impression is that he's hiding something.
What it is comes to light when Jenny (Greer) also bolts through the front door unexpectedly. She's the well-connected wife whom Jack is supposedly divorcing and whom the family has always disliked for her East-coast ways. She's there to inform one and all that her estranged hubby has embezzled $27 million dollars by siphoning from dead accounts -- money in the accounts of deceased persons -- he realized no one was paying any attention.
The revelation just before the end of Rebeck's attenuated first act provides what little plot there is: Will Jack decide to return the money or at least split it with the conniving Jenny? It's obvious, however, that Rebeck has conceived the complication solely as a peg on which to hang her real purpose: addressing the often irreconcilable differences between New York City and mid-West manners and mores.
This is a very real issue, needless to say, when anyone examines the red-state-blue-state pattern on a contemporary political map -- and maybe even more convincing when anyone considers Jack's contention that his actions may be assumed by his family to be undeniably criminal but are less certain when viewed from current East-coat banking-world perspectives. (Never forget that Nick Caraway's ultimate take on the tragic events in The Great Gatsby stems from his realization that he and his benighted friends were mid-Westerners attempting to assimilate in Manhattan and environs.)
So, yes, Rebeck does offer the makings for a play. What she doesn't do is adequately fill out the project for two acts. If there's a way -- why shouldn't there be? -- she hasn't found it. Instead, she stuffs her opus with insufficiently nutritious bits that register as the dramatic equivalent of the delectable-sounding local item called a Cheese Coney about which Jack, Lorna and Phil carry on. There's also more blather about the pizzas Jack totes in than is called for. Okay, the halting Lorna-Phil romance kinda earns its keep, as do lines like the one Jenny delivers to a friend over the phone concerning the kitchen floor on which she's standing, "Linoleum -- it's not a myth."
Rebeck's fade-out doesn't earn its keep, however. Precisely what happens won't be revealed here for the simple reason that Rebeck herself doesn't appear to know, which leaves the audience in a quandary as well. It's enough to say she calls for a one-character tableau where something occurs with the set that could be interpreted several ways -- and therefore any way. Unfortunately, it has the unintended effect of suggesting that everything preceding it is insubstantial.
There's nothing insubstantial, however, about what O'Brien encourages fearless, two-Tonys Butz to accomplish. The guy makes Jack a memorable jackanapes, often by what has to be sheer improvisation. At one particularly ebullient moment, he presses his body against a large glass door and does some physical business with his T-shirt that gets the audience howling. And that's only .001 percent of his creation.
O'Brien has the others shining like polished linoleum, too. Holmes -- meant to lend marquee-name draw after her marriage to and divorce from an A-list movie magnet -- couldn't be better at delineating the unceasing frustrations exhibited by a lonely woman under stress. Houdyshell is so good at playing the average middle-aged housewife that she continues proving she's today's Maureen Stapleton-Sada Thompson. Hamilton and Greer flaunt their inestimable chops, too. And don't discount sound designer Mark Bennett's repeated use of "Sentimental Journey" to emphasize the point.
If Dead Accounts is more alive than its basic script, Rebeck has her team to thank, and profusely.
Anne Bogart is putting her acclaimed SITI Company through a piece she calls Trojan Women (After Euripides), at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Harvey. Setting aside the observation that her take couldn't really precede Euripides, it behooves a reviewer to note the production -- adapted by Jocelyn Clarke and created and performed by the troupe -- is for the most part quite poorly acted.
Aside from Brent Werzner -- who as Poseidon enunciates persuasively and looks strapping when book-ending the proceedings -- only company leading lady Ellen Lauren as Hecuba rises to the demanding occasion. Taking the cue for passion Hamlet attributes to the bereaved matriarch, Lauren laments her people's plight with great strength. Even at that, she's more technique than feeling.
The program notes that the piece is "inspired by" Homer, Euripides, Jean-Paul Sartre, Edith Hamilton, Roberto Calasso, Aristotle, David Lachapelle, Simone Weil and several more bold-faced names, but what they've contributed isn't very much in evidence.