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Norbert Leo Butz Chews Up Some Broadway Junk Food in Dead Accounts


Funny thing, credibility. Norbert Leo Butz is a tremendously resourceful actor, gifted with superb comic instincts and with a gigantic range of expressions—gestural, facial, and vocal. Give him an opportunity to show off his repertoire, like the one he gets in Theresa Rebeck’s Dead Accounts (Music Box Theatre), and he seems unstoppable, stooping, leaping, arm-waving, writhing, growling, yelping, shuddering, whimpering, and ranting. Butz, in motion, makes your average carnival midway look as sedate as a duchess’s tea party.

And what’s the result? Though his self-propelled hootenanny provokes huge laughs, occasionally abetted by Rebeck’s better gag lines, barely a second of it seems credible in the context of her attenuated, tonally muddled script. In between the bouts of sullen silence he supplies for contrast, Butz pings with precision on every manic point, but the overall effect just suggests a lunatic running loose, only minimally controlled by director Jack O’Brien.

Ostensibly, Butz is playing a middle-class ex-Cincinnati kid, now a hotshot NYC banker married to an elegant WASP heiress, who appears unexpectedly in his childhood home, where his spinster sister (Katie Holmes) now helps his mother (Jayne Houdyshell) nurse his dying father (unseen offstage). Spinning around their banal kitchen, venting about snobby New Yorkers and gushing over the joys of Cincy junk food, he drops elliptical hints about the cause of his unexpected return, while you wonder why the two women don’t have him straightjacketed as an obvious nutcase. The arrival of his estranged wife (Judy Greer) restarts his vent-o-rama. Finally, to our relief, she tells him to shut up—though it’s only to prove she still loves him with a passionate lip-lock.

Such is life in the magically incoherent world of Rebeck, where character consists solely of whatever might seem effective next. Her hero has been sacked, you see, because the bank caught him siphoning off $27 mil from those titular inactive accounts for his personal use. He and his wife are divorcing; despite her family’s apparently immense wealth, she wants half the loot. Or does she want him back, even with his probable indictment looming? Common sense rarely applies on planet Rebeck.

Nor does anyone onstage strive to pretend otherwise. Butz struts his stuff; Holmes strains, eagerly and hoarsely, to keep her role in motion; Greer glides placidly over the contradictions in hers. Houdyshell and Josh Hamilton, as Butz’s high school pal, grapple honorably with the leavings Rebeck hands them. Why the stars and producers thought ticket buyers would come remains a mystery.