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Mauritius: Inherit The Stamps

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The best part of Theresa Rebeck's Mauritius is the set-up.  It's the kind of plot that readies you for a hot night of intrigue, double-crossing and maybe a moral debate or two.  Unfortunately, the predictable directions where the playwright takes the story, coupled with questionable choices by director Doug Hughes, makes the evening frustrating and disappointing.  But it's got a terrific set-up.

Half-sisters Jackie (Alison Pill) and Mary (Katie Finneran) each claim rightful ownership of a family stamp collection after their mutual mother dies.  The cash-strapped Jackie had been given the book of stamps by mom after taking care of her during her final years and wants to see if there's anything valuable that can be sold.  The estranged and well-off Mary says the stamps were promised to her by her late grandfather who had actually purchased them, and she wants to keep them as a remembrance.  Jackie takes them to a disinterested stamp dealer (Dylan Baker) who demands a high price for just looking at them, but lurking around his shop just happens to be Dennis (Bobby Cannavale), all brash with streetwise charm, who tells Jackie that she's got some rarities on her hand, including two exceedingly valuable mistakes from the island of Mauritius, printed in the 1800's.  Dennis works for the wealthy, high-strung and violent stamp enthusiast, Sterling (F. Murray Abraham), keeping an eye out for potential purchases.  The actual value of the stamps in question, the truthfulness of anything anyone says and the alliances that may or may not have formed are all mysteries that should have made Mauritius a neat little entertainment.  The production even has a terrific, musty look with John Lee Beatty's gloomy stamp shop set, Paul Gallo's shadowy lighting and Catherine Zuber's solid costume work.

But the realism of the playing area is immediately disturbed by a normally fine collection of actors giving performances that are either overdone or inappropriately comic.  You can regularly count the three dots Pill (or perhaps Rebeck) seems to randomly place in the middle of her sentences in order to show her character's nervousness.  Baker's belligerent snootiness is just too much, as is Finneran's overly erudite voice and manner.  Cannavale has a good handle on his charismatic con artist until the transparency of his attempts to seduce whichever sister seems to have legal possession of the stamps is played for cheap laughs.  Sure, it can be argued that each character is "acting" to a certain extent, which may explain the broad performances, but that doesn't justify the weak payoff.  Only F. Murray Abraham, playing a bit of an eccentric to begin with, gives a performance that fits snugly into the text, even when that text requires him to react orgasmically over a stamp .

Much of the problem is that Rebeck's script is so plot-driven that there's barely any background given for the characters, leaving little of interest for the actors to play and nobody for the audience to care about.  The twists and turns that proliferate the second act grow tedious as the dialogue grows thematic ("These stamps belong to the world!").  A gun is revealed at one point, with zero consequence, and the characters seem unusually casual about a book of stamps supposedly worth a fortune, leaving it lying around and handling it haphazardly.

Sterling gives a lengthy speech about how flaws can make a stamp remarkably valuable.  If the same were true of theatre, Mauritius would be worth a fortune.

Photos by Joan Marcus:  Top: Alison Pill Center:  F. Murray Abraham and Bobby Cannavale Bottom: Dylan Baker and Katie Finneran


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