The Girl Next Door
On the Home Front: Katie Holmes Returns to Broadway in "Dead Accounts"
By Nathan Heller
Among the culture wars rending this nation’s soul—left versus right, “progressivism” versus “values,” Beatles versus Stones—none may be quite as fervid as the battle between urban coastal striving and the gentle manners of the Midwest. Dead Accounts, a new comedy by Theresa Rebeck opening on Broadway with Norbert Leo Butz and Katie Holmes in the leads, follows the collision of those two worlds on the threshold of one family home. When Jack (Butz), a fast-talking New York banker, shows up unannounced one night at his childhood house in Cincinnati, his sister Lorna (Holmes), a lonely 30-something who still lives in town and cares for their parents, senses something is wrong. Jack is fed up with the “carrion birds” of New York life, he says; he misses the “sweet” Midwest—its earnestness, its generosity, its ice cream. Is that all, though? Gradually, it emerges that Jack’s marriage is in tatters, his ambition has soured to resentment, and all is not well at work. Now, like a high-strung Nick Carraway, he’s home from the big city with lots of baggage and the hope that his Catholic family will help him find his way again.
In person, Butz and Holmes have an easy, almost familial chemistry. Since first coming to Broadway in 1996, Butz—warm, intense, and expressive, with light-brown hair and a rueful smile—has held major roles in many productions, winning two Tony Awards, for his performances in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Catch Me If You Can (both led by Dead Accounts’s director, Jack O’Brien). Holmes—friendly, chipper, and self-deprecating—has spent most of her career in front of the klieg lights, not the footlights: Dead Accounts marks her first stage work since 2008, when she appeared in British director Simon McBurney’s Broadway revival of All My Sons. Yet both come from Catholic families in the Midwest (Butz grew up in St. Louis; Holmes hails from Toledo and rose to fame, in Dawson’s Creek, by trading on her girl-next-door charm) and say Rebeck’s script struck a familiar chord.
“There are some plays where you have to do ‘research,’ where the world of the play is foreign to you. This is not one of those plays,” Butz explains at a table upstairs at Sardi’s, where he and Holmes have come in the middle of rehearsals. He is dressed in a dark jacket and an untucked shirt; she, relaxed and well turned-out in a cream-colored blazer and a long knit gray scarf, is sitting barefoot and cross-legged on a chair nearby. “To be from one of these large Catholic families is really to be from a clan,” he says. “You can go to the other side of the moon and you don’t ever lose that identity.”
Holmes, her head cocked to one side to listen, agrees. “You grow up in that environment, and when you leave it, all those things are being challenged,” she says. “Jack tried something, and it didn’t work. Now he’s coming home, and all of these people who have played it safe are the first ones to say, ‘How could you do that?’ It’s like that saying ‘Morality is a lack of opportunity.’ ”
Dead Accounts premiered in Ohio last January, in a production by the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park. The new cast also includes stage veteran Jayne Houdyshell as Jack and Lorna’s mother, screen actress Judy Greer as Jack’s New York bride, and indie actor Josh Hamilton as his childhood friend in town: archetypes brought specifically and vividly to life. Rebeck, whose last play on the New York stage was Seminar, with Alan Rickman, says that the tone changed with its move to Broadway. “It’s all taken on a more epic weight—the city of Cincinnati is seen more as a place, rather than our place.” O’Brien—also a Midwesterner come East—is best known for his work on massive musicals, but it was the intimacy of the play, he says, that drew him in. “This takes place in a kitchen,” he told me. “There is a whole kind of permission in the kitchen that doesn’t happen in the bedroom or the living room.” He says it’s been a fruitful setting for his stars. “This is my third experience working with Norbert, and my first with Katie, and having them secure in the world of the play makes it much easier. Everybody’s an expert on their own childhood.”
For the performer, Butz says, the challenge lies in not trying to be funny, facetious, or endearing. “If you try to layer something on the play that it doesn’t want or doesn’t need, it sticks out like a drunk uncle at a Thanksgiving meal,” he says. “Theresa writes the way people really behave and really talk—and isn’t that funny?”
“Like, just me in the kitchen is a comedy,” Holmes says. “But it’s heartbreaking for me going through it—”
Butz erupts into surprised laughter. “Because you’re such a bad cook?”
“Yes. But for others, they probably think it’s really funny, because all the pans are out, and I get frustrated, and suddenly it’s burning—”
“And all these emotions will come out of it—” Butz offers, nodding.
“And I went to Eataly,” Holmes explains. “I got the stuff. And it still turned out, like—not good!”
For Holmes, on the heels of a much-ogled Hollywood divorce, a return to the stage may bring more relief than a successful platter of tagliatelle ai funghi ever could. Lorna’s struggles to accept the disappointments of her nonstarting adult life, as well as the fleeting delights, make the role one of the most mature Holmes has taken so far. Although she’s no stranger to the invasive eye of public life (since beginning her life as a single parent, she’s been photographed with her daughter, Suri, everywhere from the park to the grocery-shopping circuit), the vulnerability of the stage appeals to her. She’s enthusiastic about doing more Broadway work. “God, I hope so,” she says. “It’s exciting because there’s no close-up, so a person has to use every inch of themselves. The way their hand is says something.” She pauses. “So you’re never done—and who wants to be done? It’s just another opportunity to keep growing.”