The Girl Next Door
Broadway’s Just a Suburb of Cincinnati
The New York Times
By Patrick Healy
To hear Katie Holmes tell it, she is not so different from her character, Lorna, in the new Broadway play “Dead Accounts,” even if Lorna is a defensive sad sack who has moved back home with her parents in Cincinnati after a failed relationship. That image doesn’t exactly square with Ms. Holmes’s new life as a glamorous single mom in Manhattan, four months after her divorce from Tom Cruise. But if Lorna passes for anything, she passes for normal, and normal is what Ms. Holmes aspires to these days.
Amid her marital meltdown in the summer, for instance, Ms. Holmes took her daughter, Suri, on vacation to her parents’ place in Toledo, Ohio. Her father, Martin, took them out for ice cream every night, and Ms. Holmes recalled with delight how she found a new favorite flavor, Spouse Like a House (vanilla with chocolate-covered pretzels and caramel), and worked off the calories by running in the parks of her childhood as the youngest of five.
“I still think of myself as Midwestern,” said Ms. Holmes, 33, who arrived for a recent interview without any trappings of celebrity: no assistant, no makeup, no jewelry, no designer labels — only a simple black band to tie her wet black hair into a ponytail.
“I mean, I’ve had box wine,” she continued. “It’s good. And it’s a lot easier to open.”
Box wine is one of many cultural signifiers in “Dead Accounts,” a family comedy now in previews at the Music Box Theater, about morality and middle-class Ohio Catholics written by one of their own, Theresa Rebeck, who grew up outside Cincinnati. As in her earlier Broadway plays, “Seminar” and “Mauritius,” Ms. Rebeck has created a noisy roomful of sharp-tongued characters who are uncomfortable in their own skin — none more so than the self-conscious Lorna, who is preoccupied with dieting, and her nervy brother Jack, who is elusive about his sudden return from New York. The plot ultimately turns on questions of loyalty for the characters, especially Jack, who wrestles with whether an Ohioan can live among East Coast elites and still retain his homespun integrity.
Playing Jack is the two-time Tony Award winner Norbert Leo Butz, who, like Ms. Holmes, can stake a claim to the background of his character. Mr. Butz grew up in St. Louis (“a sibling city to Cincinnati in temperament and culture,” he said) and was the 7th of 11 children, sharing a room of bunk beds with three of his brothers. By his early 20s he left home for acting school in Alabama and then chased his professional dreams to Manhattan — a drive similar to that of his character, who heads east for excitement and fortune. And like Jack, Mr. Butz has reckoned with the costs of a fast-lane New York life, having moved with his family to suburban New Jersey.
“I came to New York with a tremendous amount of neuroses, to try to succeed and have some place to put my ambition, and to make money,” said Mr. Butz, who won best actor Tonys for the musicals “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” (2005) and “Catch Me if You Can” (2011). “Now, at 45, having made a little money, having competed for work, having had my heart broken constantly in this business — all of it has made me question things like faith and innocence. I think the play has brought up those questions again for Katie and me, not least because this story is about where we’re from.”
Ms. Holmes declined to be interviewed alone but agreed to meet with a reporter when Mr. Butz was added to the mix. The two were loose and affable with each other; they’ve eaten lunch together with the rest of the cast almost every day during rehearsal breaks, meals at which all of the actors have been comparing notes on their hometowns, which include two other Midwestern cities: Topeka. Kan., for Jayne Houdyshell (who plays the family matriarch) and Detroit for Judy Greer (who plays Jack’s Manhattan-princess wife). The play’s director, the Tony winner Jack O’Brien, is from Saginaw, Mich.; the odd man out is the actor Josh Hamilton, who grew up in New York (and plays an old friend of Mr. Butz’s character).
While Mr. Butz, Mr. O’Brien and Ms. Rebeck are admired theater veterans, all three said it was the casting of Ms. Holmes that guaranteed the show would reach Broadway. The play had received promising reviews (for a different cast) last winter at the Playhouse in the Park in Cincinnati.
“Bringing the play to Broadway got much, much easier once we had Katie,” said Ms. Rebeck, who wrote “Dead Accounts” for a commission from the Cincinnati theater. “And Katie was the actress I wanted. She is just so beautifully Midwestern. You can see it in her face. She is transparent, and she is a listener. And while she doesn’t have a lot of stage experience, she’s hungry for it.”
Ms. Holmes and Mr. Butz had met once before, briefly, in 2008, when she was making her Broadway debut in the revival of “All My Sons” and he was backstage visiting his old “Scoundrels” co-star John Lithgow. Ms. Holmes had drawn mixed reviews in “All My Sons” — Ben Brantley wrote in The New York Times that her portrayal of a love-struck girl was not believable — but Mr. Butz said he was impressed with her bravery in her first big outing in New York. Still, he wasn’t sure what to expect as the Holmes-Cruise media whirlwind was in full gust in the summer.
“Meeting Katie felt like being on a Match.com setup, because you never know what it’ll be like with a movie star who’s in the news,” Mr. Butz said of Ms. Holmes, who has been in several films, like “Pieces of April” and “Batman Begins,” as well as the television series “Dawson’s Creek.” “But I thought our chemistry was palpable. We were both Midwestern, from big families, and raised Catholic, which has its own culture, code ——”
“It’s a behavioral code as well,” Ms. Holmes interjected. “It informs everything.”
Mr. Butz continued, “And it’s a code that Theresa is examining, asking if there’s any real value to holding onto childhood, conservative values ——”
“Innocent values,” she said.
“Innocent values,” he repeated. “And do they have value even if they came from a church or parents who you’ve grown apart from?”
Ms. Holmes said: “Do these values still work for me? “Do they still make sense? I’ve asked myself those questions for years.”
Try to tie provocative statements like that to major moments in Ms. Holmes’s life, however — like her marriage to Mr. Cruise, his declarations in praise of Scientology, the birth of Suri or the couple’s divorce — and she would only smile slightly and turn the conversation back to her gratitude for “Dead Accounts.” Broadway has been a way station for many a Hollywood star on the credibility circuit; in Ms. Holmes’s case, if “All My Sons” was about introducing Mrs. Cruise to the public as a serious stage performer, then “Dead Accounts” is her reintroduction as a working New York actress who rides the subway and pops into Starbucks unaccompanied. Not once during the hourlong conversation did she deviate from that script.
At a few points Mr. Butz acted like a protective older brother, far more than his character does with Ms. Holmes’s Lorna. He answered several questions by telling anecdotes about Ms. Holmes, like her habit of bringing snacks for the cast and crew as part of her role as the show’s designated Actors’ Equity deputy. (“She is always asking us how we are, if our needs as Equity members are being met — a total nurturer,” Mr. Butz said.) And when Ms. Holmes would pause before answering certain questions, Mr. Butz would fill the silence, as he did when she was asked about similarities, in growing up, between her big Toledo family and the “Dead Accounts” family of six siblings in Cincinnati.
“There have to be some,” said Mr. Butz, who sat by her side at a kitchen table on the rehearsal set of the show. “Just the Catholicism alone.”
Ms. Holmes was not straining for her own opinions; after years in a media spotlight, she was just very deliberate about creating her answers. If Mr. Butz is an expressive stage animal, Ms. Holmes is a listener who is more used to being observed (and photographed) than acting and speaking impulsively.
“Catholicism, yes,” Ms. Holmes said, “but it’s more about the family bonds. I have these moments where what’s going on in my life is unbelievable, and you have to tell everyone to figure out how to respond. My siblings and I are always on the phone saying: ‘Oh my God, what do you think? What does Mom think? What does Dad think?’ And then you act accordingly.”
As for the dilemma facing Mr. Butz’s character in “Dead Accounts” — big-city life warping your morality — both he and Ms. Holmes said that their upbringings still served them well.
“I’m like Lorna in that my values guide me in an instinctual way, like, ‘That feels weird’ or ‘I better send a thank you,’ ” Ms. Holmes said as she slouched forward. “Also, the Midwestern work ethic: You do what you do, and you don’t talk about it. You don’t say, ‘Oh, I’m a doctor.’ You won’t have many friends if you do that. And when you’re in the entertainment business where you’re applauded for so many things ——”
“Disproportionate to the amount of work you do,” Mr. Butz piped in.
“You can easily fall into thinking, ‘Wow, I’m really something,’ ” she said. “But I believe in putting your head down and doing the work.”
To that end Ms. Holmes said she was a bit uncomfortable with the idea that theatergoers may buy tickets to “Dead Accounts” simply to bask in her celebrity, especially when being a star is far from her mind. She largely avoided the New York and Los Angeles night life before marriage, and she has been hunkered down with her child and script most nights this fall.
“I have a hard time sleeping because I think about how serious this all is,” she said of expectations for the production. “I think about the cost of tickets. I think to myself: ‘You better do a good job. People are paying a lot of money.’ You want to know your stuff.”