NEW YORK — At this juncture in what must at times be a very surreal life, Katie Holmes, a tabloid staple and yet a favorite daughter of Toledo, Ohio, now finds herself on Broadway in a play by Theresa Rebeck, playing a lower-middle-class character who grew up and remained single in another city in the Buckeye State. It's impossible to watch Holmes — who somehow has retained an air of fresh-faced Midwestern guilelessness — without wondering how she actually feels playing lonely but lovable Lorna of Cincinnati, who is what Holmes perhaps might have become had life taken a very different turn. Would she have been happy?
It's a relevant question when it comes to "Dead Accounts," a new play that is so obsessed with contrasting New York values and Midwestern values that it sometimes feels as if every line starts with "here in the Midwest" or "People in New York …" Rebeck clearly intends to lampoon her mercurial Manhattan milieu and treat the Midwest without the usual condescension. But one of the many problems with this script, which is entertaining and zesty in a moment-by-moment way but really does not hang together as a credible dramatic story, is that it relies on the dodgy assumption that people in Cincinnati actually define themselves, all the time, as heart-of-America Midwesterners, when, in fact, they think of themselves as Cincinnatians, residents of a pretty urbane locale.
"Dead Accounts" follows the return to the Ohio homestead of Jack (Norbert Leo Butz), an exuberant but jumpy fellow who apparently has acquired a great deal of money and now is spending it all on ice cream, pizza and chili. He arrives to a family in some crisis. Both his sister Lorna and their mom, Barbara (Jane Houdyshell), are caring for their father, sick and unseen in an upstairs room. Jack's follower-type childhood pal, Phil (Josh Hamilton), who still holds a candle for Lorna, is around to offer more Ohio color. And then there is the matter of Jenny (Judy Greer), Jack's rich, bitchy, very New York wife. What is up with her and her marriage?
With the central mystery of how Jack came into his money occupying much of the two hours of stage traffic, "Dead Accounts" holds one's attention, not least because it allows the hyperkinetic Butz to energize the piece. He is a lot of fun throughout, especially when playing opposite Houdyshell's dry wit. Holmes was struggling vocally Wednesday night and generally lacks sufficiently expansive definition, but, in the few moments of actual revelation, she finds some poignancy in her relationship with her character.
None of these actors, though, can help the lack of credibility of some of the play's central devices. In Act 2, events hinge on the morality of stealing money from so-called "dead accounts" at a bank. Yet those assets, surely, would have been turned over to the state.
When Rebeck keeps things in the personal realm, she's on stronger footing. Anyone who has left for the big city will empathize with Butz's Jack, just as those who stay home will recognize Holmes' Lorna.
"Dead Accounts" hints at the very worthwhile notion that two Americas have grown up alongside each other, one in the thrall of religion, the other of money. Holmes, one suspects, knows a good deal more about that kind of stuff than her character ever gets to say here.
"Dead Accounts" plays at the Music Box Theatre, 239 W. 45th St., New York. Call 212-239-6200 or visit deadaccountsonbroadway.com.