Playwright Theresa Rebeck holds a PhD in Victorian Melodrama, and in Mauritius you can see where she’s put her doctorate to work. There’s a buried treasure, a twisting plot and a fight to the finish. The villain gets all the best lines, and after each scene, the audience is treated to interlude music so sinister it may as well be played on a pipe organ. The whole modern-day whodunit (or, rather, who-gets-it) is over a stamp collection, a sprawling volume of rare specimens that Jackie has just inherited from her grandfather. Eager to find out its worth, she soon discovers she is the lucky holder of two very rare, possibly priceless stamps from the island of Mauritius. She resolves to sell them as soon as possible, owing to a dire financial situation, but is impeded by her long-estranged half-sister Mary, who shows up claiming the stamps are hers. In their standoff they involve three shady characters: Philip, a misanthropic philatelist; Dennis, a streetwise stamp dabbler; and Sterling, an old tough guy with a lot of money and a sentimental weakness for postage.
What follows is a Mamet-like deal-or-no-deal play, with a bit of The Maltese Falcon thrown in. The stamps are the play’s MacGuffin, yet, contrary to the rules of noir, they receive far more attention than any of the characters, and the audience is left having a hard time finding someone to root for. The drama between the half-sisters is the focal relationship, but since neither sister cares for the other, their ruckus over the stamps never evolves into anything deeper. Their dialogue consists of variations on: “They’re mine!” “No, they’re mine!” — an argument that cannot possibly go anywhere.
The other relationships are similarly detached, and we are left to fill in far too many details on our own. There’s the long-standing bad blood between Philip and Sterling, but we never learn what started it. Why withhold this kind of information, when doing so only confuses our attention and prohibits our investment? An even more nagging question is why Jackie insists on dealing with these conniving cash-in-hand types when she could easily sell her stamps for a fortune anywhere. And, finally, since Sterling has little compunction about hitting people, male or female, and it looks like he carries a gun, why doesn’t he just take the stamps instead of spending all of Act Two negotiating for them?
However, it’s a good thing Sterling takes the political road. His lengthy tête-à-tête with Jackie makes for the best scene of the play, thanks mostly to F. Murray Abraham. In true bad guy tradition, Abraham turns the imposing huckster into the most enjoyable of the characters, making pure poetry out of the circuitous double-talk. His co-conspirator, Dennis, is played by the winning Bobby Cannavale, who, along with Abraham, employs a charm the other performances are largely without. Dylan Baker screams all of Philip’s lines like an old lady going deaf. Allison Pill as Jackie finishes the show on the same note as she starts — carping, shrill and defensive. Kate Finneran comes at the controlling Mary with refreshing sympathy; it’s just a shame a plot twist in the second half forces her to devolve into the Wicked Witch of the West.
Abraham and Cannavale are enough reason to go see this show, but even their robust character work is not hearty enough to fill in the plot holes. While the playwright deserves credit for arousing real interest in the science of stamp selling, there isn’t enough interpersonal drama to make the matter feel important. The dialogue is witty, often clever, but Rebeck’s Broadway debut, like her PhD, seems an academic effort in the name of a slim subject.