The actress and costar Norbert Leo Butz make the most of lackluster comedic material

Credit: Andrew H. Walker/Getty

You’ll want to know what sort of performance Katie Holmes gives in Theresa Rebeck’s Dead Accounts, which marks the actress’s second Broadway appearance and her first since she slipped out of the orbit of That Superstar Who Declared His Love by Jumping on a Sofa.

She’s good.

That s a lot, considering there’s not much meat to this comedy, and that most of it has been thrown into the sizable, eager mandibles of Tony-winner Norbert Leo Butz. It’s a showcase role, and he’s up for it.

The performance is so full of outbursts, jokes, feints and tics he could have marked every moment with Post-it notes left across the set, a middle-class kitchen in Cincinnati: Here is where he manically gobbles his way through cartons of ice cream. Here is where he falls to the floor in a (very convincing) burst of hysterical laughter. And here, here, here and here are moments in which his manic comedy seems to be shading off into something closer to a genuine breakdown.

I don’t think audiences would really be ready to see Katie Holmes have to go through all that.

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Butz plays Jack, a Wall Street type who has returned to – fled back to? – the family home in Ohio, bringing with him a whirlwind of confusion. Why are his pockets full of prescription pills? Where did he get those wads of money he keeps throwing on the kitchen table? Why does he keep joking that he’s murdered his wife? Why, in general, does he behave like Charlie Day from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia?

Holmes plays Jack s unmarried, sad-sack sister, Lorna, who is helping their father (unseen offstage) through a bout of kidney stones. In the first act, the role consists mostly of moving to and from the kitchen table and filling in a lot of expositional and background details that don’t seem necessary. If your brother had turned up late at night, possibly out of his mind and yammering about how Cincinnati makes the best ice cream, would you and your mother spend the next morning discussing Catholicism and whether or not Jack should go to Mass? No.

However, Holmes gets her moments in the second act: Lorna is given a simple, tender monologue about planting a tree when she was a child, followed by a full-throttle, over-the-top tirade against money, banks and fiduciary wickedness.

Holmes gets a big laugh there, but you have the nagging realization that the little memory about the tree slipped by without registering emotionally – that it was a lot more meaningful than the tirade, and that Holmes should have been directed to dig deeper. Or that Rebeck, creator of NBC s Smash, should have written deeper.

Apart from being unhappy – and who isn’t? – is Lorna pathetic, depressed, neurotic, stupid? We never know.

By this point, we’ve found out Jack’s secret, and the puncturing of that mystery leaves us with little more than a tangle of themes messily duking it out: death, family, money, New York vs. Cincinnati and, toward and right up to the end, more and more about that symbolic tree.

Based on a rather pretty stage effect at the finale, I would say the tree wins.

I would even speculate that the play would have been better if it had actually have been about trees, about their beauty, their cycle of renewal, their longevity through time.

But then (1) Rebeck would have had to abandon her thin sitcom plot, or (2) Holmes would have had to learn to be a tree.

I doubt audiences are ready to see Holmes play a tree.