A suspenseful new drama, Maritius, from the playwright Theresa Rebeck launches Manhattan Theatre Club’s 2007-2008 season and if the tantalizing play does not fulfill completely, the evening is nonetheless clever entertainment by way of an accomplished cast. Two postage stamps from Maritius, a picture perfect island in the Indian Ocean, propels the action of five people, who squabble over the ownership rights of a stamp collection that may be worth over 6 million dollars.
Two half sisters, who have been estranged for a number of years, clash over the leather, bound collection, left amongst their deceased mother’s possessions in Rebeck’s Broadway debut. Since their mother didn’t leave a will, the play is somewhat of a thriller. Legally, it would seem the stamps belong to Jackie (Alison Pill), who lived with and cared for her mother until her recent death. Possession may be considered 9/10 of the law, but Mary (Katie Finneran), Jackie’s older affluent sister, who had apparently abandoned the two women, shows up after all these years to stake her own claim. She believes she is the rightful owner, because the stamps belonged to her biological grandfather, and she helped him assemble the collection. She has knowledge of the “Post Office” stamps known as the one and two penny issued in 1847 from the island, now worth millions alone, that are part of the collection, so her motivations may not be pure.
Jackie is resentful at Mary for her long absence, and due to mounting bills from her mother’s illness, desperate for money. She has no idea as to the stamps real value, but hopes they might be worth something. She sees the stamps as a possible solution to her financial woes, while Mary insists she wants them to maintain the connection to her beloved grandfather. The stage is set for a classic struggle between good and evil, as the two sisters square off, ultimately coming to physical blows. Although it did not diminish the fun, the deck feels stacked, and I found myself rooting for the sympathetic Jackie.
The fine cast sustains our interest and elevates the evening with charismatic performances blurring the flaws in Rebeck’s play. She is a writer with extensive credits in TV police dramas and as a result her emotionally charged play takes on a series of intensely dramatic twists with the five characters shifting alliances within their struggles to gain possession of the one and two penny stamps. Rebeck is a gifted veteran, who has given us acclaimed Off Broadway hits, The Scene, Bad Dates, and Omnium Gatherum, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. She is an innovative playwright and her dialogue is intelligent and often witty. In Mauritius her men, however, sound like guys right out of Mamet but her characters often display unexpected traits in finely crafted dramatic moments. The underlying psychological motivations aren’t clear with many questions left unanswered, but the production sustains interest with a smart mystery style that is consistently entertaining, despite the holes.
The tension mounts in Doug Hughes’ briskly paced suspenseful direction, which enhances the play’s virtues and raises the ante by having the dynamic actors pull all the stops out and then recover. There are several surprising exchanges between the accomplished actors, which are most engrossing, while encouraging you to take sides at the same time.
All five actors turn in passionate performances with the best work coming from two of the men, F. Murray Abraham as Sterling, who wants to buy the stamps for cash and Bobby Cannavale as the loveable con man Dennis, who drives the action as the intermediary. Mr. Abraham has been absent from the stage for some time, but he is right on point as Stering, his polished exterior hiding a killer instinct, he erupts with explosive menace that is thrilling. Then quickly, he collects himself, but you never quite forget what he is capable of doing.
Alison Pill, who is creating an excellent reputation for her riveting work, brings high voltage energy to Jackie, but I found Katie Finneran’s Mary, the perfect sneaky villain, although strongly played, one noted and mannered. Dylan Baker displayed little nuance as Philip, the obnoxious stamp dealer Jackie goes to in hopes of discovering the collection’s value, but his sour demeanor is memorable and he is easy to dislike.
The evening is handsomely produced with revolving turntable sets by John Lee Beatty and lighting by Paul Gallo that provide a glimpse into the dusty forgotten world of a stamp collector’s upstairs office. Mauritius is a fun night at the theater and this is a crafty production in which Rebeck appears to be making a point about real value being found in the imperfections.
By Gordin & Christiano
Originally Published in Dan's Papers
Mauritius opened at the Biltmore Theatre, 261 West 47th Street, on October 4, 2007. Tickets are available by calling Telecharge.com at 212-239-6200, online at HYPERLINK "http://www.Telecharge.com" www.Telecharge.com , or at the box office. Performance schedule is Tuesday through Saturday at 8pm, Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday at 2pm.