Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - October 4, 2007
Mauritius by Theresa Rebeck. Directed by Doug Hughes. Scenic design by John Lee Beatty. Costume design by Catherine Zuber. Lighting design by Paul Gallo. Original music & sound design by David Van Tieghem. Fight Director Rick Sordelet. Cast: F. Murray Abraham, Dylan Baker, Bobby Cannavale, Katie Finneran, Alison Pill.
Don't buy it? Then Theresa Rebeck's new play, Mauritius, is not for you. Buying into that philosophy is the best way to ensure a good time at this well-acted, twisty-turny comedy now being presented by Manhattan Theatre Club at the Biltmore. Whatever you do, don't take it too seriously. As it's a play that concerns a pair of rare stamps, it's inherited a few of its subjects' defining traits: Mauritius is mysterious, enticing, and two-dimensional.
No matter. Given that two of Rebeck's other recent plays, The Scene and The Water's Edge (both of which Second Stage produced last season), explored darker territory with at best middling results, Mauritius's relative success as a piece of entertainment is nothing to scoff at. It's done no favors by its director (an out-of-his-element Doug Hughes), but it manages to stay completely involving despite its story about a mad grab (and regrab) for control of two squares so tiny they can't be seen from the audience.
They're the one-penny and two-penny "Post Office" stamps, printed in very limited quantities on the island of Mauritius (located off the east coast of Madagascar) in 1847 and prized for the mistake that led them to be printed with the words "post office" instead of "post paid." Somehow a pristine pair of them has landed inside an old stamp album, which Jackie (Alison Pill) is intent on selling as a way to permanently end her money problems. An attempt to get them appraised by expert Phillip (Dylan Baker) leads to nothing - he's as belligerent as he is brilliant - but intrigues his impetuous colleague Dennis (Bobby Cannavale) and in turn international arms dealer and die-hard stamp lover Sterling (F. Murray Abraham), who has a yen for perfection wherever it may be found.
Everyone, though, must be extremely careful with their words, lest they give too much away. That could be deadly both to the deal, whatever that may be and whomever it may be with (these things, as perhaps is to be expected, change several times), and to the play itself, which instantly becomes less interesting as soon as we get to know those involved. Rebeck may have crafted a cunning story of deception, but it's best seen as an intellectual means to plot-tastic ends. The people, it turns out, are just as flat as the stamps.
We never learn, for example, of the traumas that have colored the preternaturally bitter Jackie, or the familial wedge forced between her and Mary. Nor is Dennis defined as much other the eternal mediator, playing all sides against the middle in a clumsy bid to make sure he always ends out on the best side of the deal. Sterling, a consummate businessman, can spit out a heartfelt speech about the fine-grain differences between perceived and actual value - Abraham's delivery of this second-act monologue is as close as Mauritius gets to a dramatic tour de force - but what really makes him tick is left unexplained. Dylan, the best-developed of the quintet, has an ex-wife, commitment issues, and plans to preserve the Post Offices for posterity; he does not, however, exhibit any additional identifiable symptoms of realness.
There's not a drop of specificity to be found here, but that's at least part of the point: Events late in the show leave everyone, particularly armchair philosopher Dennis, questioning the dehumanizing effects of the obsession that's gripping them. As they make heavier and meaner plays for the stamps, they become practically robotic in their single-mindedness, unaware of the lies they tell or the pain they inflict on others in pursuit of what they want. The double-playing and coyly spiraling alliances make for great tension, but hardly great theatre; at its best, Mauritius is a lower-wattage, more-convincing Da Vinci Code.
Hughes has foisted enough manufactured heaviness on the play that it often feels he's trying to force it to become the next Doubt. The slight pleasures Mauritius offers don't benefit from dramatic scenes staged and lit (by Paul Gallo) so they look like impressionistic reimaginings of Tennessee Williams or William Inge, or comic scenes that lumber around the larger personalities of key cast members instead of driving the action forward themselves. Certain staging sloppiness, frequently with regard to the $6 million stamp album (which is manhandled and misplaced with alarming regularity), does not contribute to the necessary sense of priceless treasures being at stake.
It's Abraham, however, who achieves the closest balance between reality and fantasy. He transforms Sterling from a two-bit hustler into the play's social conscience, deriving his performance more directly from the love of money (and what it can buy) than the others. Whether invoking a complex set of economic theories to explain his underbidding for the stamps, or describing an impending business transaction (in which a suitcase full of money features prominently) as "a most intimate exchange," he approaches his quest with a surprisingly believable blend of anxious child and law-school lothario.
The passion and urgency he brings to Sterling tend to unbalance the play a bit. It's not clear, after all, why we should symapthize so much with the most scheming, most violent, and most outwardly despicable of everyone fighting for the stamps. But as Rebeck provides scant reasons for siding with the so-called good guys, why not? It may not be ideal, but Abraham is reason enough to roll with the punches, even when Mauritius only connects every other time.