Katie Holmes is ideally cast in “Dead Accounts.” Not because she’s that Katie Holmes, but because the fresh-faced star effortlessly projects the Midwestern virtues of honesty and moral integrity that scribe Theresa Rebeck celebrates. These values are kicked around in an amusing if aimless way in this comedy about a rogue hero (the perfect role for Norbert Leo Butz) who throws himself on the family bosom after behaving badly in New York. Rebeck opens up some smart arguments about old-time values in a modern world, but these circular conversations are too shallow to rock the boat.
Helmer Jack O’Brien pulls off his usual expert casting job, with Butz at the center of all things as a lovable scoundrel who heads home to Cincinnati after stealing $27 million from the inactive (i.e., “dead”) accounts at his New York bank. In Butz’s highly inventive perf as Jack, this manic thief pitches the argument that something judged a crime by Midwestern moral standards is no more than creative bookkeeping in New York.
“The people who own the money don’t exist,” he reasons, and since the people who hold it in trust never touch it, “There is like this completely ambiguous space between them and the money.”
Jack’s twisted logic touches a chord with his sister, Lorna (Holmes), who feels just as constrained by local moral codes, but values the regional ethnic over Wall Street cynicism and greed. “No one in the Midwest gives a shit about banks right now,” she says of the heartless institutions that sent the local economy reeling. “So don’t go acting like it’s so terrible he stole from a bank. No one here cares.” Sincerity brimming in her wide-open and completely honest eyes, Holmes delivers that rip-roaring defense with refreshing candor — and a solid sense of comic timing.
Comic timing happens to be Jayne Houdyshell’s stock in trade. As matriarch of this God-fearing household, she won’t condone son Jack’s bad-boy behavior. But she’s amusingly determined to overlook anything, including grand larceny, that might keep her from running her house her way. (And a very neat, clean house it is, in David Rockwell’s set design.)
The arrival of Jack’s estranged wife, Jenny (Judy Greer), opens the floor to Rebeck’s funniest cracks about the vast cultural gulf that separates New York from the rest of the country. “There actually is, seriously, linoleum flooring,” she sneers to a friend on the phone. “Linoleum, it’s not a myth.”
Jack throws himself into battle, defending the home turf where he has run for protective cover and spiritual reclamation. “My family is nice,” he says, surprising himself with his lack of irony. “We’re in the Midwest, we’re too polite to be mean.”
But Butz has to push for laughs in his scenes with Greer’s bland Jenny, a role that cries out for the cutting edge of a current-day Holland Taylor or Christine Baranski. Better to turn away from that awkward tug of war and focus on the easygoing match between Holmes’ unassuming Lorna and Josh Hamilton’s Phil, the sweetest swain a corn-fed girl could ever hope for.
The bad news about “Dead Accounts” is that the material is too thin even to support its modest ideas. And while there are smart parts and clever bits, they don’t add up to the stimulating stuff of dramatic comedy. As a commissioned piece for the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, the piece probably carried more weight (and earned more affection) than it does here among jaded New Yorkers.