AISLE SAY New York
by Theresa Rebeck
Directed by Doug Hughes
A Production of the Manhattan Theatre Club
Biltmore Theatre / 261 West 47th Street / (212) 239-6200
Reviewed by David Spencer
You know you're in good hands when a dramatist has the ability to make you care about something that, in real life, you couldn't give a shit less about. Theresa Rebeck is such a dramatist, for in her latest, Mauritius, she gets you all juiced up over collectible stamps.
Now of course, that's not really what she's doing, it's never what a gifted dramatist does, what she's really doing is presenting the most innocuous thing in the world, two slips of paper maybe an inch square each, and giving them the power to change lives, the power to inspire passion, and from passion extreme acts. In that sense, the stamps, the traditional McGuffin, are merely the metaphorical trigger for a story in which covetousness is what's really on the table for exploration. Drama 101 kids: the more specific you make the particulars, the more universal the story becomes.
But Mauritius isn't just easily enjoyed by general audiences because of that. It's also what I call—with deepest respect, mind you—a "paperback play"—by which I mean a no holds barred page turner that keeps the story going with enough speed and reversals that it's all you can do not to turn to the last page to see how it comes out. (As for me, I'm not being metaphorical. Critics get scripts these days, if they request 'em, and I had Mauritius on my lap. During intermission, I pulled it out of its manila envelope and really considered reading ahead, for a minute or two, before forcing myself to sheath it again.) Ms. Rebeck's play isn't quite a noir thriller...it isn't that dark...but in terms of the extreme and colorful characters, the collision of streetwisdom with naivete, the hardboiled dialogue and the level of suspense, Ms. Rebeck (who, I imagine, it pays to recall was a veteran scripter of NYPD Blue) can hold her own with James M. Cain, Jim Thompson, Harry Whittington and Horace McCoy, among others. The only thing missing is a Gold Medal imprint on your ticket.
All this said, how do I describe the characters without giving away any of the delightful reversal? Because no one in this play is quite what they seem at first; even those who have no hidden agenda have hidden depth that skews them in surprising directions. Can't really. Save to say that after the death of her mother, young Jackie (Alison Pill) is looking to have some stamps left to her appraised; only the appraiser she's been sent to is the caustic, effete and uncooperative Philip (Dylan Baker). Though the "amateur expert" Dennis (Bobby Cannavale) who happens to be in Philip's shop offers to help her. Leaving connections for you to discover, the remaining characters are a rich, high powered (and probably powerfully criminal) enthusiast named, ironically, Sterling (F. Murray Abraham); and Jackie's half-sister Mary (Katie Finneran) who puts the ownership of the stamps in doubt.
What I can tell you is that under the inspired direction of Doug Hughes, all the actors hit precisely the right paperback pitch; the performances, like the characters on the page, are conceived and executed to quirky perfection.
Mauritius is a muscular, funny and well-told tale, that can hold its own with the best pulps that ever spun on a newsstand rack. Now if only you could see it for 35¢...