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By MARK BLANKENSHIP
The Broadway premiere of a new play is always a major event, but sometimes, it can feel refreshingly modest for the artists involved.
Take Dead Accounts, the new dramedy by Theresa Rebeck that officially opens at the Music Box Theatre tomorrow night. The story of a Cincinnati family that's trying to keep it together, it features a raft of marquee names. Norbert Leo Butz plays Jack, the son who suddenly arrives from New York with a possibly illegal fortune; Katie Holmes plays his frustrated sister Lorna, who has never managed to leave home; and Judy Greer (13 Going on 30, 27 Dresses) plays his estranged wife Jenny, who turns up in the Midwest for a variety of shady reasons.
But despite all these stars, Dead Accounts is still a one-set, five-character play. Many members of the cast and creative team are happy to work on something so contained.
"Usually, I'm facing either a gigantic army or a big musical," says director Jack O'Brien, whose Broadway credits include Hairspray, Catch Me if You Can, and Tom Stoppard's three-play epic The Coast of Utopia. "When you're working large, you've got to come up with a lot of answers fast. You've got to hold the center of the room in a way that makes everyone feel they're being listened to and that they're going in the right direction, but it's like herding."
He continues, "When you have three or four or five people, you can listen to them. In this case, the actors are smart and sympathetic, so I can set them free, and then watch the natural process happens and select the best moments later. You can't do that with a room of twenty-eight people."
This attentive approach has helped Greer discover the vulnerability in her estranged wife character. "When I first read the play, I didn't pick up on that right away, but now in rehearsals and table reads, I've realized that this woman really loves [Jack], and I want her to love him," she says. "I wish we did this kind of work on movies. They'd be better. How do you spend thirty million dollars and not sit down and talk about things?"
Holmes and Butz have used rehearsals to learn how to seem related. "We're trying to find the specifics of this brother and sister," says Holmes. "In the first scene, we're eating ice cream, so what can we do to make it more than just eating? What can we do to make it clear that there's a relationship?"
Butz adds, "You can't do anything that isn't in the play, but Theresa Rebeck is from a big, loud, messy, Catholic Midwestern family. As is Katie. As am I. We all speak the same vernacular."
Rebeck, too, has been discovering new things about the play, which premiered earlier this year at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park. The Broadway process has clarified the importance of Jack and Lorna's father. We never see him, but we know he's dying in another part of the house, and Rebeck says his presence has become just as powerful as Jack's sudden riches. "When it got into Jack O'Brien's hands, we all realized that there was a Chekhovian wound here, that the play is really held by the fact that the father is dying," she says. "And so there's been a tonal shift. It becomes less of a jokey situation and becomes very real."
Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor
Photo by Joan Marcus