Inheritance, money and postage stamps - these are the strings pulling the characters in Theresa Rebeck's entertaining play "Mauritius," which last night opened the Manhattan Theater Club's Broadway season.
But the characters are stronger than the strings pulling them, and the acting is better than the untextured characters being pulled.
A suavely yet viciously obsessed F. Murray Abraham, a sleazily charming Bobby Cannavale and, as the toughest kid on the block, a wondrous Alison Pill are giving some knockout performances, ably supported by Dylan Baker and Katie Finneran.
Frankly, those infernal postage stamps are the least convincing part of the plot.
We're asked to believe that a stamp collection worth millions was scrunched up in a tatty album, left by a woman of modest means who died beset with mounting debts. Her daughters, battling over ownership of the stamps, are half-sisters who scarcely know one another.
Mary (Finneran) knows about the collection, which belonged to her paternal grandfather, and clearly has some concept of its value. The younger sister, Jackie (Pill), who cared for their mother in her final sickness, seems to have had little idea of its worth.
This collection apparently contains mint copies of two of the so-called "Post Office" Mauritians stamps issued in 1847 in a tiny British island colony - now worth millions at auction.
And while there are other rare stamps here, too, it's those Mauritian stamps around which two dealers, Philip (Baker) and Dennis (Cannavale) and a billionaire collector named Sterling (Abraham) hover and drool like carrion-scenting vultures.
The play's conceits - that any dealer would be trusted to vouch for a stamp's authenticity just from looking at it, and that any collector, however rich, however nutty, would accept such judgment without any details of provenance - is ridiculous.
So it all depends on the writing - and Rebeck is nifty in catching the criss and cross of convincing dialogue - the staging, and even more on the acting.
Doug Hughes' direction, little helped by John Lee Beatty's bland settings, is as expert as ever, applying a certain needed crisis control to a play often threatening to spiral into bombast.
The actors go about their business with skillful dispatch. Cannavale is totally convincing as a good-hearted crook who heats up unexpected chemistry with the fiercely chilling, awesomely confident Pill.
Yet perhaps only those who treasure the romance of the postage stamp might more readily succumb to the melodrama's thrills and spills.
The scrappy gamine with the determined chin is doing her best not to look frightened, but you can tell she is seriously scared. She should be. She has wandered into an all-male citadel of foul-talking, machine-gun-mouthed con artists, all with their eyes fixed hungrily on the same elusive prize. Yes, this young woman has dared to enter what appears to be an early play by David Mamet.
That, in any case, was how I felt watching Alison Pill, a rising young actress with attitude to spare, in “Mauritius,” the deftly formulaic play by Theresa Rebeck that opened last night at the Biltmore Theater. I’m assuming, perhaps wrongly, that “Mauritius” is a conscious hommage to “American Buffalo,” the 1975 drama that made Mr. Mamet’s name.
In “American Buffalo,” three squabbling men, one of them a raging sociopath, set out to gain possession of a rare coin collection. In “Mauritius,” three squabbling men, one of them a raging sociopath, set out to gain possession of a rare stamp collection. The essential difference between the two plays isn’t the change from numismatics to philately. It’s that Ms. Rebeck has added estrogen to a testosterone base.
In a season in which Ms. Rebeck is the only female dramatist with a new play on Broadway, it would be heartening to report that this hormonal readjustment makes “Mauritius” feel brand-new. Yet despite some passages that crackle with original life, the production mostly has the ersatz air of an expertly drawn blueprint on tracing paper.
Directed by Doug Hughes, “Mauritius” is neatly structured, fleetly paced, handsomely mounted and engagingly acted. It’s hard to imagine in theory a tastier ensemble than this one, which includes F. Murray Abraham, Dylan Baker, Bobby Cannavale and Katie Finneran.
And of course you can’t dismiss the pleasurable kick of watching a woman, Ms. Pill’s character, take on a slew of Mamet-esque thugs (although Mr. Mamet himself presented that situation in his 1987 film, “House of Games”). But the angry passion that has illuminated much of Ms. Rebeck’s work, including her social satires “Omnium Gatherum” (written with Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros) and “The Scene,” flickers only occasionally here. She goes through the motions gracefully in “Mauritius,” but she never makes the dance her own.
“Mauritius” caters efficiently to a hunger that Broadway hasn’t been gratifying in recent years. That’s the corkscrew-twist drama of suspense, a genre that was a theatrical staple for much of the 20th century, from “Gaslight” to “Deathtrap,” but is now largely the province of film and television. (Ms. Rebeck’s résumé includes extensive work on high-caliber TV cop and legal dramas, like “NYPD Blue.”)
The title “Mauritius” refers to an island off the coast of Africa from which a now highly collectible stamp, described as “the crown jewel of philately,” was issued in the age of Victoria. Like the Maltese Falcon (or for that matter, the nickel identified as an American buffalo), the Mauritius stamp is the fraught object of desire for an assortment of folks of shady backgrounds and motives, who meet in a dizzy roundelay of double-crosses.
Chief among the participants in this battle for control are the feisty, life-bruised Jackie (Ms. Pill) and the seemingly genteel Mary (Ms. Finneran), half-sisters who have nothing in common but a newly dead mother who left a stamp collection for them to fight over.
Then there’s the triumvirate of stamp-loving men with whom the sisters become embroiled: Philip (Mr. Baker), who runs a dusty philately shop; Dennis (Mr. Cannavale), an oily tongued dude of indeterminate employment; and Sterling (Mr. Abraham), an ophidian fellow with a hair-trigger temper and enough money to buy whatever he wants.
You don’t need me to tell you much more — right? — to figure out what the plot is like. The story, like John Lee Beatty’s terrific, self-changing sets, moves quickly and fluidly. It unfolds in a series of Darwinian power shifts and with staccato dialogue in which it’s impossible to tell who has the upper hand or who’s scamming whom.
Ms. Rebeck knows that teasing ambiguity is the key to holding an audience’s interest in a play like “Mauritius.” She has strewn her script with a multitude of mysteries, never to be entirely clarified, about past wounds, crimes and ordeals. “There is damage there,” Dennis says of Jackie, who is using him to peddle the stamps. “Damage. This is a desperate person.”
I’m a sucker for such film-noirish observations. But Ms. Rebeck never really makes good on the promises of her atmospheric dialogue, with its talk of the nature of obsession and how it is the errors that make people, like stamps, of interest. These are less complete characters than exercises in style: components in a ritual of negotiation on which they take turns commenting self-consciously.
The cast members fill the blank spots in their characters with varying success. Ms. Pill channels the sort of intense child-woman she embodied so brilliantly in “Blackbird” last season, and she still commands attention, though it may be time for her to switch gears.
And she achieves a warm chemistry with Mr. Cannavale, a young Emmy-winning actor who brings captivating vitality and charm to the stale part of a grandiloquent rogue. Ms. Finneran, a comic dazzler in her Tony-winning turn in the revival of “Noises Off,” does nicely by the manipulative Mary, a mistress of emotional contradictions and the most freshly conceived of the dramatis personae.
Mr. Baker and Mr. Abraham never quite dispel the impression that you have met more vividly drawn versions of their characters before. Mr. Abraham appears to be doing a mild variation on Ben Kingsley’s attention-getting portrait of a sadistic crime boss in the movie “Sexy Beast.” He’s appropriately slimy , and I liked the mother-hen inflections that suddenly pierced the vicious persona. But he is never truly frightening in the way Sterling has to be. Overall, even when folks become violent in “Mauritius,” you may find that your pulse rate stays low.
Watching performers as skilled as these tossing the ball of their characters’ power is diverting, for sure. And “Mauritius” is head and shoulders over recent Broadway examples of what the trade papers like to call suspensers, half-baked plays like John Pielmeier’s “Voices in the Dark” and Stephen Belber’s “Match.”
Fans of David Mamet, however, may want to wait until Mr. Mamet’s own new play, “November,” opens on Broadway early next year.