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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As the matriarch of the occasion, Houdyshell gives off the right, relatable vibes. "What appeals to me about this particular mother," she said, "is her moral center. She's a deeply religious person and has strong faith and conviction. That has always been her guiding force in raising her children. Things come up in this play that test her somewhat, and I think that she proves that she's a very strong person."
Plus, she gets big laughs. "Theresa Rebeck is a really gifted comedic writer, and the comedy in this thing is a pleasure to play. And Jack knows how to make it look easy. He is one of the most inspiring directors I've ever worked with. I don't think there's anything about the theatre that Jack doesn't know how to do. He's a great diagnostician. He can watch actors work on a scene and know exactly what to say to them that will pinpoint the most effective thing that will help them in that scene."
Hamilton, New York born and bred, is the only non-Midwesterner in the cast. "They all have this inherited niceness. It's true. They really do. I'm trying to soak it up."
At Gotham Hall, Nathan Lane planted himself at the table of the equally amusing Douglas Carter Beane, currently the Cinderella scripter, and was a pretty constant party-hub around which buzzed some of the bigger names of the night.
When she was asked "What's next?" by a reporter, Cherry Jones reached in her coat pocket and whipped out her Samuel French copy of The Glass Menagerie. "We're doing it at the A.R.T. in Cambridge, with Celia Keenan Bolger, Zachary Quinto and Brian J. Smith, with John Tiffany directing and Bob Crowley's doing the set. Isn't that incredible! We're going into previews in early February and open right after that." More immediately — like, in the next few days — she plans to check out her Tony-winning Catherine Sloper, The Heiress, now being reinterpreted by Jessica Chastain at the Walter Kerr. "I can't wait to see it and meet Jessica," she trilled.
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Dee Snider, who put in a few months of 2010 in Rock of Ages, said he hopes to be back on Broadway in one of his own creations: "I've written a musical called A Very Twisted Christmas, which I've optioned, and we're going to be workshopping in February. It's alternative holiday entertainment, based on the music I've written over the years. It's about a rock 'n' roll band, in a last-ditch effort to find fame and fortune, selling their souls to the devil but finding the magic of Christmas instead. It's wholesome! I've been writing for a number of years, but this is the first musical. I wrote the book, I wrote the music, I wrote the lyrics, and I'll probably be one of the characters if my producer has anything to say about it."
And what accounts for him being at Dead Accounts? "I'm here, cheering on Katie Holmes," he replied rather gallantly. "I don't know her, but I've watched her in recent months, the way she handled herself post-divorce — a very difficult situation — and I think she showed a lot of class and style. I think it's great she came to New York with her kid, got out in public, got into a show, just got back into living. You got to respect that. It's tough enough going through a divorce as a regular person, let alone with paparazzi following you around, so I'm rootin' for her."
First-nighters included Brooke Shields; the expectant Bill Heck and Maggie Lacey (Orphans' Home Cycle); TV's-"Lost"-and-Broadway's-found Maggie Grace (she's Madge, "the pretty one" — I'll say! — in the upcoming revival of William Inge's Picnic); John Barrett, hair stylist of the stars (Katie Holmes in particular); cosmetics CEO Bobbi Brown, makeup artist of the stars (Holmes in particular); Christian Camargo, looking like Heathcliff in bluejeans; Jessica Walter, late of Anything Goes; Sherie Rene Scott and her Everyday Rapture director, Michael Mayer (TV's "Do No Harm" pilot is directed by him); actor-director (Checkers) Terry Kinney; TV news anchor Rosanna Scotto; soap star Louise Sorel; fashion designer Robert Verdi; character actress Patricia Conolly, busily playing a grandmother for real and turning down other roles accordingly; Hettienne Park and Lily Rabe, graduates of the Rebeck Seminar, the latter now literally knockin' 'em dead on TV's "American Horror Story" (the quality of mercy, apparently, is very strained these days); Hope Davis; playwright Marsha Norman, and a couple of New York actors from "Argo," Zeljko Ivanek and Victor Garber.
Richard Kind, who will make a sharp turn into drama this spring as the oppressive producer in Roundabout's revival of The Big Knife, is also in "Argo" and regaled his group with a line that was cut from that film because it was too funny — a snarky exchange between him, playing a hack screenwriter, and Alan Arkin, as a producer.
Kind: How's Sylvia?
Arkin: She's dead.
Kind: Oh, I'm sorry.
Arkin: Nine years ago.
Kind: I've been busy.