Which Way from Here?

Katie Holmes in the ill-fated production of Theresa Rebeck’s “Dead Accounts.” | JOAN MARCUS

Katie Holmes in the ill-fated production of Theresa Rebeck’s “Dead Accounts.” | JOAN MARCUS

The crash and burn of Theresa Rebeck’s “Dead Accounts” after 27 previews and 44 regular performances, playing to houses filled to as little as a quarter of capacity and seven weeks shy of its promoted “limited engagement,” raises questions not about the fate of Broadway — so often referred to as the “fabulous invalid” — but to its current business models.

Despite the recent spate of plays starring TV or movie stars that have received tepid reviews and either closed or are limping along, that approach continues to flourish. Even as Broadway raked in a record-breaking $1.14 billion in the 2011/ 2012 season, more than one-third of that went to established shows that are big hits with tourists and presumably, like “The Book of Mormon,” have not exhausted their broad New York-region audience.

The failure of “Dead Accounts” prompts thinking about Broadway, the business

It’s called show “business,” so someone hopes to make money at it. In another industry, an algorithm might have been developed to quantify the appeal of a star before committing to a production. But Broadway is a business that deals in gut feelings and emotion and so, as in Hollywood, the potential to misread an audience and a venture’s viability leads to many shows that never recoup their investments.

When intuition rules, there can, of course, be spectacular surprises — and that’s a big part of what gives Broadway its popular appeal — but the situation is also ripe for disaster. The only reason people keep investing is that the occasional runaway hit can make producers very rich. Broadway is more analogous to gambling than virtually any other business, except that on the Great White Way the house plays with its own money — something, you’ll remember, that Max Bialystock in “The Producers” always warned against.

I had intended to review “Dead Accounts” before its demise, but now I’m left with the opportunity to examine the show as emblematic of the larger challenges facing Broadway in 2013. Theresa Rebeck’s work is at best facile and shallow, though it can be entertaining. “Seminar,” while not much of a play, was at least funny. The TV series “Smash” is a model of improbable characters and situations that are downright laughable to anyone with a working knowledge of theater. Still as train-wreck TV, it has its campy appeal — and it’s free.

“Dead Accounts,” on the other hand, was a largely undeveloped play that asked whether or not a banker who stole $27 million should get away with it. It wasn’t just badly written, it was a bore. Evidently, producers thought they could score a success drawing only on the one percent, the only crowd who could warm to such a character.

Ricky Martin in the revival of “Evita,” which closes on January 26. | RICHARD TERMINE

Ricky Martin in the revival of “Evita,” which closes on January 26. | RICHARD TERMINE

Katie Holmes, the show’s marquee-value star, had recently gathered some curiosity points through her divorce from Tom Cruise, but is that enough to get anyone to plop down a top ticket price of $147 to see her live rather than on a magazine cover or “TMZ”? (That, by the way, is the premise of “Chicago,” in which an acquitted murderess ends up in vaudeville to titillate the hoi polloi. That show has been a revolving door of stars — and it has the heft to pull it off.) Celebrity scandal is now so commonplace and so widely broadcast that showcasing a star at the center of it hardly seems like a viable business strategy.

One certainly didn’t go see Holmes for her acting. She has come a long way from her bland performance in “All My Sons,” but Rebeck’s play makes such light demands on her as an actress that a furrowed brow and a concerned tone were all that were required of her. Surrounding her with such theatrical stalwarts as Norbert Leo Butz, Jayne Houdyshell, and Josh Hamilton helped, but under Jack O’Brien’s disengaged direction, they were left to doing familiar performances we’ve seen from each of them. The only reason to cast TV actress Judy Greer must have been to make Holmes look marginally more competent. Greer’s was a completely unanimated performance. Like many TV and film actors, she just went dead when it wasn’t her turn to speak. Once the excitement of seeing Holmes wore off — about five minutes in — there was nothing to keep audiences engaged.

A good product will attract an audience. But a good product is built from a winning array of attributes. Based on her roles in “The Help” and “Zero Dark Thirty,” Jessica Chastain is a hot film star. Does that mean that enough people want to see her in an old adaptation of a Henry James novel, “The Heiress,” to make it profitable?

When the revival of “Evita,” powered by a magnetic but miscast Ricky Martin, closes on January 26, it may barely make back its investment, and if it does it will be because his star power trumped the weakness in the production. Whatever you think of them, “War Horse,” “Once.” “Annie,” “Newsies,” “Wicked,” “Spider-Man,” “The Lion King,” and “Book of Mormon” continue to play at or near capacity with no stars. A viable product finds its audience. The challenge for Broadway is marrying product and audience.

The brand identity of a star is just one element in making a hit show. People buy brands again and again because they know what they’re getting and they have an emotional connection to them. It may seem callous to talk of living, breathing actors in that way, but producers must — and do — if they are serious about making money. The object lesson of not doing that is only too obvious. A weak brand and a faltering concept result in horrid product, which is why “Dead Accounts” was DOA.