You might expect Katie Holmes to have something to prove in her first acting appearance since splitting from Tom Cruise. You might expect her to emerge onstage in a gown by Valentino and shoes by Jimmy Choo.
Well, put those expectations aside. In Theresa Rebeck's new Broadway play, Holmes first appears in sweat pants and fuzzy pink slippers, her hair in a frazzled ponytail and her spoon in a quart of antidepressant ice cream.
In "Dead Accounts," Holmes plays an "old but pretty" woman who "seems like a loser" and lives at home with her parents. She only flashes her beauty once, freeing her hair and looking seductive — enough to remind you what a head-turner she can be.
It's a brave move for the 33-year-old, who deserves credit for trying hard. But she mostly tries hard to keep up with stage veterans Norbert Leo Butz and Jayne Houdyshell in Rebeck's oddly thin new play, which opened Thursday at the Music Box Theatre. Director Jack O'Brien struggles to both get the five-person cast to really jibe and the rhythm of the plot to get going.
Holmes relies too much on a whiny teenage angst and a guilelessness that worked on TV but lacks nuance onstage. That said, she does generate two of the biggest cheers in the play — one for pulling out a cheap box of wine from the fridge and the other for an anti-bankers rant that sounds like it could come from an Occupy Wall Street protester.
Rebeck, who created the first season of NBC's "Smash" and several well-received plays including "Seminar" and "Mauritius," has stumbled a bit with "Dead Accounts," a love letter to the hardworking, plainspoken Midwest, but one that lacks the sharpness and depth of her previous work.
Too often Rebeck's insights come in the form of clunky fortune cookie proverbs, as when one character says, "It's complicated. But anything true, is!" Or when another says: "Religion and money are just the dumb things we use to plug up the hole in our hearts because we're so afraid of dying."
The heavy lifting is done by Butz, who plays Jack, a banker who one day abandons his rich life in Manhattan for the calmer hometown sweetness of Cincinnati and his listless sister (Holmes), old buddy (a contained Josh Hamilton) and his slightly demented mother (a delightful Houdyshell). His chilly wife (nicely nasty Judy Greer) follows.
Jack is slightly crazed, buying too much ice cream and pizzas, sitting too close to people, spouting strange manic philosophy and flitting generally too close to the psychic edge. His sister puts it perfectly when she calls him "very a lot." The Act I curtain falls on the stunning reason he has fled.
Butz at first seems to be overcompensating for the smallness of Holmes, but the anguish and heart of his character are revealed beautifully. Butz makes Jack both lovesick in one moment and thunderously revengeful in the next, showing the complexity of a Midwestern boy in love with his local hot dogs and yet one who has grown comfortable in his plush steak-eating New York life.
But "Dead Accounts" doesn't really resolve anything or really end. It just sort of peters out, its momentum lost and none of its issues resolved. There's a halfhearted, last-second attempt to bring grace to Jack, but it's more of a Hail Mary-type pass, one born out of desperation. At the play's end, it feels like the audience itself should be handed quarts of ice cream as a commiserative olive branch.