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Volume 77, Number 19 | October 10 - 16, 2007


By Theresa Rebeck
Directed by Doug Hughes
The Biltmore Theatre
261 W. 47th Street
(212-239-6200; ManhattanTheatreClub.com)

Joan Marcus

Alison Pill and Bobby Cannavale in playwright Theresa Rebeck’s Broadway debut, “Mauritius,” at The Biltmore

A thriller that bears the stamp of Hitchcock

By Scott Harrah

Prolific playwright Theresa Rebeck — author of recent off-Broadway hits like last winter’s “The Scene” with Patricia Heaton and Tony Shaloub — makes her Broadway debut with her most intriguing work yet, “Mauritius.” Rebeck, who has also written a number of scripts for TV crime dramas such as “NYPD Blue,” is a true master of suspense in this Hitchcock-like thriller about two half-sisters who inherit their late mother’s stamp collection. (The story may not exactly sound fascinating, but these are no ordinary stamps.) The sisters fight over which of them gets to keep the collection because it contains two extremely rare ones from the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius that are rumored to be worth several million dollars. It is the quest to find out just how much the stamps are worth — and who will ultimately sell them — that forms the foundation for the show’s riveting narrative.

Tony-winner Doug Hughes — best known for 2005’s Broadway smash “Doubt” — directs the impressive cast of TV, stage and film veterans with great dramatic timing even though Rebeck’s dialogue wanders into unnecessary psychobabble at times. Jackie (Alison Pill from Martin McDonagh’s critically acclaimed “The Lieutenant of Inishmore”) is seen wandering into a philatelic shop in the first scene, hoping to get her mother’s stamp collection appraised. Owner Philip (Dylan Baker) refuses to accommodate her unless she coughs up a $2,000 fee. Hanging out in the shop is fast-talking Dennis (the wonderfully ebullient of TV’s “Will & Grace” Bobby Cannavale, who won an Emmy for playing Will’s dimwitted Italian-American cop boyfriend). He offers to appraise Jackie’s collection for free, despite the fact that Philip insists the guy “knows nothing” about stamps. It is never made clear whether Philip and Dennis might be a secret team that have worked out a scheme to con Jackie out of her priceless stamps, but that’s the real beauty of “Mauritius”: the unanswered questions about the characters set up numerous plot twists that always keep the audience guessing.

Much of the story’s tension exists between Jackie and her half-sister Mary (Tony-winner Katie Finneran), a woman who returns to their family home after the mother’s death and claims the stamp collection really belonged to her late paternal grandfather, a man not even related to Jackie. Mary is an imperious woman who has always looked down on her half-sister and contends that her grandfather intended the stamp collection to be shown in a museum. The Mauritius stamps supposedly date back to the island’s rule by Queen Victoria’s Empire and contain flaws that make them extremely rare and valuable.

Oscar-winner F. Murray Abraham plays Sterling, a filthy rich, mysterious collector who offers to buy the stamps, but — like other characters in the play — his true intentions are questionable. Some of the show’s best moments are between Abraham and Cannavale, delivering rapid-fire repartee that makes both a joy to watch even when Rebeck’s dialogue descends into obtuse, hard-to-follow twaddle and melodrama (things that were quite pervasive in the playwright’s ill-fated 2006 drama “The Water’s Edge”). Cannavale is especially captivating. Whenever he is on stage, he demands (and gets) constant attention with his animated mannerisms, wild gesticulation and tough-guy baritone voice.

Dylan Baker, as the haughty philatelist Philip, brilliantly plays his character as a gruff old curmudgeon. The performances of Allison Pill and Katie Finneran, however, aren’t as solid as the others, but both display enough histrionics and add the right of amount of high-strung emotion to make the friction between the half-sisters plausible. Some of the violent scenes between them — one physically roughing up the other — seem a bit strained, but never to the point of being unbelievable.

The show’s climax and denouement are as dramatically satisfying and full of layers and unresolved questions as great stage thrillers of yesteryear like Ira Levin’s “Deathtrap” and Agatha Christie’s “The Mousetrap.” One leaves the theater contemplating the motives of the characters, the true benchmark of any intricately crafted mystery. Despite its sometimes verbose, thematically murky and clunky dialogue, “Mauritius” never disappoints with its endless twists and tense energy that starts in the first scene and continues through the end of act two.

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