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Biltmore Theater

Even those who fret over the lack of non-musicals on Broadway may be disappointed by “Mauritius.” Theresa Rebeck’s dark comedy is written with a stiletto but even a first-rate production and outstanding performances can’t disguise a lack of substance. It’s an uneasy melding of two plays, with murky results.

Sharp writing, tense-filled direction and a painterly physical production can’t make up for the work’s shallowness. Rebeck injects a number of what might be provocative themes in her tale of double and triple crosses. More, her dialogue crackles and she’s terrific at little touches, like having her characters repeat each other’s names, suggesting the kind of nuanced complexity that one character says governs arrangements between strangers. (“Want some chips, Jackie?” “No, I’m good, Dennis.”)

If this were strict melodrama, perhaps it wouldn’t matter that the evening is thin or the characters sketchy. Yet, while the work catches fire, at last, in its final scene, Rebeck offers few outright thrills in her tale of a woman bent on selling a valuable stamp collection.

Value, in fact, permeates the evening. The stamps – a one and two-cent issue from the island of Mauritius that bear the words “Post Office” instead of “Post Paid” – are worth millions. Along with an “inverted Jenny,” these are among the most precious acquisitions in any philatelist’s collection. But it’s the fact that they are flawed, that they’re errors that give them their true value, mirroring flawed characters.

To whom do the stamps belong? To Jackie, the woman who nursed her mother through her final illness and who took possession of the album? To her half-sister Mary who has specific memories of the collection that her paternal grandfather amassed? The never fully explained sibling conflict takes up a good portion of the first act.

It’s more or less dropped for the second half which veers into a cat-and-mouse game of who’s got the stamp album. Here the concentration is on Philip, the supercilious philately expert; Dennis, the goodhearted go-between; and Sterling, the sleazy, fabulously rich collector who drags in a suitcase full of money and delivers an extended discourse that neatly packages Rebeck’s theme. “I don’t live in the future,” he says. “In my world, the present is the only moment that exists.”

The brightly talented Alison Pill is Jackie. Standing at the ready, pitching her voice high, narrowing her eyes, she’s an enigmatic figure, tough and resilient, yet wary. As her sister Mary, Katie Finneran is given little to do except repeat, to the point of risibility, that the stamps belong to her via her grandfather. Dylan Baker’s Philip is sour and prissy.

As Sterling, F. Murray Abraham has one of his juicier roles, but doesn’t figuratively twirl his mustache. Avoiding outright villainy, he conveys a believable passion for the tiny bits of paper that he so covets.

But the evening belongs to Bobby Cannavale. As Dennis, he runs with Rebeck’s rich dialogue, sounding a bit like Marlon Brando, including that actor’s combination of tenderness and toughness. “I did not mean to intrude on your personal space,” he says at one point, investing the line with touches of stupidity, pretension, humor and menace. Give that actor a Tony nomination.

Doug Hughes directs with his usual vitality, helped by the Edward Hopper-ish physical production: John Lee Beatty’s fluid sets, Paul Gallo’s chiaroscuro lighting and Catherine Zuber’s unobtrusive costumes. But “Mauritius” doesn’t deliver.

--Irene Backalenick
Oct. 11, 2007

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