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Dead Accounts

nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
December 6, 2012

In the middle of the night, Jack has just appeared unexpectedly at his mother’s Cincinnati home, without his wife but with an overwhelming abundance of Graeter’s ice cream, to him a signifier of everything that’s good and real about the hometown he left for New York years ago. (Over the course of the play, this same slightly compulsive generosity, or perhaps almost pathological need to assuage hunger, will acquire the same plethora of cheese Coneys—chili dogs—and pizza.) His explanation to his sister Lorna of how he got the ice cream—by bribing the janitor to let him in to a closed ice cream shop and fill as many pints as he wanted—presages the supposed central ethical dilemma of Theresa Rebeck’s new play involving the “dead accounts” after which the piece is titled: if a transaction doesn’t really hurt anybody, and in fact everyone on either side ends up thinking they’re better off, can it possibly be a crime, or even wrong? But while that’s a diverting question in a single monologue, it’s not really enough to hang a whole play on. Too, only two possible answers are really explored here, one thoroughly self-interested and the other fairly naive. (Not surprisingly, the New Yorkers fall on one side of that divide, and the Midwesterners on the other.)

Jack and Lorna seem to be at polar opposites in their life at the beginning of the play (their four other unseen siblings appear to fall somewhere in the middle). Jack is a high-flying New York banker, with his Armani suits and wads of cash stashed in all his pockets. He’s married to a wealthy socialite whose family has ties back to the Mayflower; he attends glamorous dinner parties at restaurants whose names his Midwestern family can’t even pronounce, with professional opera singers as hired entertainment. Lorna, on the other hand, has moved back in with her parents in the wake of a divorce, and spends her time ferrying their mother, Barbara, around on errands and being not-at-all-subtly undercut by Barbara at every turn—especially as compared to golden boy Jack. Now that their father is ill, with some sort of kidney problems that result in frequent kidney stones and constant agonizing pain, Lorna’s added arguing with Barbara over whether painkillers are bad for him to her list of daily tasks. She’s at her wit’s end—but so, we quickly see, is Jack, who hasn’t so much come home to be helpful or supportive as to escape a series of bad situations, professional and personal, in New York.

Not that he’s telling his family about any of this—but he starts confessing to his old friend Phil, and then his wife, Jenny, shows up, and all his secrets start to come out.

But even once all the secrets are on the table—about Jack’s business dealings, about Jack and Jenny’s marriage, even about Phil’s lifelong crush on Lorna—there’s just not a whole lot of depth to any of the characters, or a whole lot of action in the story. Instead, it feels almost like the people in the play have been mapped onto a series of opposed character traits, yes: the ones who got away from their upbringings and the ones who stayed true to how they were raised; city dwellers and suburbanites; sophistication and naivete; conventional Catholic morality and urban amorality. In some ways, most of the characters have more interesting relationships with suburban Cincinnati than with each other: Jenny’s gleeful excoriation of Barbara’s decor and Barbara’s defense of her home form one of the piece’s most heartfelt exchanges, and Jack’s paean to local ice cream in the play’s opening scene is one of his most genuine moments as well.

It’s hard to say there’s anything specific wrong with the play, but there’s nothing compelling about it either. As ever, Rebeck sharply observes details, but here they’re not part of a larger picture that I cared much about, and the piece’s final epiphany struck a very false note for me. It’s well directed by Jack O’Brien, and well performed by the entire cast.  All the performances are solid, if not standouts; it moves smoothly; it’s often very funny. But it’s also very, very thin.