Now that James Brown has entered the ledger of what Theresa Rebeck's new play calls Dead Accounts, The Hardest-Working Man in Show Business has got to be Norbert Leo Butz. His latest bid for that title bowed Nov. 29 at the Music Box.
The high-octane, two-time Tony winner plays a prodigal comet who comes home to Cincinnati, talking a mile a minute the way they do in New York City, splashing cash about like it's going out of style, buying in bulk all the remembered delicacies of his boyhood — local ice cream, pizza and something called Cheese Coneys — mystifying family and audiences alike.
This fish-out-of-water comedy is the third Broadway offering (after Mauritius and Seminar) of Rebeck, the creative spark that ignited TV's "Smash." Being a native of Kenwood, OH, Rebeck knows the small-town, small-talk turf well and mines some credible comedy contrasting it with this new fireball in town — a Midwesterner in midlife crisis who has returned to the old homestead for emotional repairs. He's not exactly pursued by the law, but they're poised — the consequence of a little trick he picked up in The Big City about claiming the bank accounts of deceased people.
That new-fangled tactic sorta chafes against the old-fashioned morality of his mom (Jayne Houdyshell), his sis (Katie Holmes), a local bud (Josh Hamilton), even the Manhattan wife he left behind (Judy Greer). They all kick this can around the requisite distance, and, after a little wine-in-a-box, the problem seems to evaporate.
Out front all the way, taking it at about 90mph, is the unflappable, unflaggable Butz, who almost never leaves the stage — so, understandably, the big buzz at the Gotham Hall after-party was about what fueled that nonstop, rapid-fire performance.
"That is the third time somebody has asked me if I drank Red Bull," the actor was heard to tell one reporter. "I have never tried a Red Bull in my life. It is just that this character is a very spirited guy. I love his brain, how fast he thinks. He's on his feet at all times. It's a guy who has lost sense of his own essence in the world — lost his better self — and is trying to reclaim it, so this is really a spiritual journey for him."
Butz also doesn't run around the block a few times to rev up for his high-energy sprint. Rather, he prefers to enter the stage at zero on the speedometer. "I try to be as relaxed as I can before going on. I worked for many, many months on the part so I learned it very thoroughly. We all worked very hard on this and had fun doing it."
Director Jack O'Brien, who steered Butz to Tonys for Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Catch Me If You Can, is the co-pilot here who keeps him on the straight and narrow.
"Jack is absolutely my favorite director in the world. He creates a really safe room. I try a whole bunch of things, and he's like a really good editor. He knows when to say yes and no to me. I rely on his eye — and his ear. He's got a great ear for what's true."
O'Brien, characteristically, tosses the compliment back at him. "I think we know each other's strengths and weaknesses and help each other. I help him monitor himself so he just doesn't run rampant. This is a very controlled, very nuanced performance he gives. It's all carefully built on that aspect of him being responsible for his gifts and knowing how not to let the dish run away with the spoon."
The play being primarily an ensemble piece, O'Brien was careful to fine-tune the whole cast. "I had five gorgeous string-players, and so the intimacy and the sweetness of that was amazing, Norbert and I, of course, know each other very, very well — and Josh and I know each other. We had a lot of experience together — but not this way. It's a whole different key, and it's kind of wonderful."
In particular, he added, "Aren't we proud of Katie? Don't we love her? She's the real deal. She's got a lot of integrity, a lot of strength, a lot of character—a lovely actress."
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