Mauritius is the first new play of the Broadway season, and a good one. Lauded playwright Theresa Rebeck is also seeing her first play produced on Broadway. That’s encouraging. And any play that uses for its title the name of a relatively unknown and somewhat difficult to pronounce island off the southeastern coast of Africa and east of Madagascar should pique a little interest. Rebeck has come up with a nifty, suspenseful, often funny play about a curmudgeonly philatelist — an embittered young woman with a pair of rare stamps to sell; her estranged sister, who claims them as hers; and the two con artists who take a special interest in them.
Although Rebeck’s credits include such laudable Off-Broadway produced plays as “The Scene,” “The Family of Mann,” “Bad Dates” and “Omnium Gatherum,” “Mauritius” reveals her affinity for the kind of twisty and tough TV scripts she has written for “Law & Order: Criminal Intent,” and “NYPD Blue.” The play’s five characters presume alliances, forge volatile partnerships, and strain testy relationships amid double dealings and deceptions. “Mauritius” is mainly, however, a play that revels in the easy deliverance of tough talk and the dispensing of loyalties when it comes to money.
Notwithstanding Rebeck’s obvious nods to the writing style and plot devices we have come to expect in a play by David Mamet, her samplings are not disingenuous. While some of the holes in the plot are purportedly there by design, they do diminish its credibility. The play then may be a little disappointing. But director Doug Hughes holds the reins securely on what is essentially just an entertaining couple of hours. An excellent cast responds with fine performances.
Jackie (Allison Pill) has the job of clearing and leaving the home of her recently deceased mother. Of particular interest is the stamp collection her mother gave to her, the only item with potential value, and a means to clear the family’s debts. Although she is brushed off by Philip (Dylan Baker), a cranky professional philatelist, who won’t even look at her collection, she gets the attention of Dennis (Bobby Cannavale), a smooth-operator cum stamp speculator who has been hanging about the store waiting for an opportunity to make a buck.
The collection is presumably notable for the one and two-penny Mauritius stamps worth as much as $6 million. Dennis approaches the guarded Jackie but the idea of a sting this big presumably can’t be done without his wealthy partner, Sterling (F. Murray Abraham), a crude, potentially vicious entrepreneur with an obsession for rare stamps. Things get complicated when Jackie’s estranged older half sister, Mary (Katie Finneran), shows up insisting that her paternal grandfather wanted her to have the collection. But Jackie, who is nobody’s fool, proves she is no easy prey either to Mary or to the three men who either individually or concertedly attempt to get possession of the stamps.
There is fun in watching the men use their wiles to outsmart each other in tough-talking riffs. The not terribly subtle Dennis is a hoot as he makes a play for Jackie, who may also have a con up her sleeve. It doesn’t come as a surprise that Mary isn’t about to give up her claim too easily.
For one reason or another, several back stories are left hanging. It is up to us to fill in the blanks regarding the cause of the ill will that propels the tension between Jackie and Mary, Philip and Sterling. But the dialogue is terse and juicy enough. The action, which includes fits of violent behavior, is good for a jolt or two.
Pill, who was so resolutely focused as the emotionally damaged woman in “Blackbird” a few seasons ago, uses that quality effectively again but also gets more opportunity to show off the humorous variables of the unpredictable Jackie’s feisty personality. As Sterling, Abraham is wonderful to watch as he changes his child-like enthusiasm into a darker state of malevolence. The comely Cannavale embeds Dennis with the right degree of coolness and gives the play its most endearing character. As Mary, Katie Finneran plays self-righteousness for all its worth. And the always excellent Dylan Baker makes self-importance an attitude worth savoring.
There is a twist at the end that doesn’t really satisfy but it comes after so many others that we take what we get with a smile rather than with a frown. John Lee Beatty’s sets that rotate on turntables between Philip’s store, Jackie’s home, and Sterling’s office; Catherine Zuber’s costumes; and Paul Gallo’s lighting all conspire to make “Mauritius” as good as it can be. HHH
“Mauritius,” through Sunday, November 25, Manhattan Theater Club at the Biltmore Theater, 261 West 47th Street. $46.50 to $91.50. 200.