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Theater Review (NYC): Mauritius

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It’s the season of the girls! Women writers are falling out of the woodwork. OK – they are all white, but still….

Theresa Rebeck joins Kate Fodor and Lucy Thurber, stepping up to the plate in her new play Mauritius. Rebeck’s writing is a hook in itself. She zips along with open wings and gathers the pieces of her stories at astonishing speed. This must be what it was like to travel in the first motor cars. Tooting along through the elements, focused not only on where you were going but on what you were passing through. Mauritius is not a smooth, even ride, and it left more than one loose end dangling. But Rebeck knows where she is going, and it is that focused ride which engages you.

It’s the story of a whole bunch of people fighting over two stamps. The very idea makes no sense to me. I never understood people who collect things. If you can’t wear it, eat it, hang it on the wall, or otherwise make use of it, what the heck is it doing in your home? But some people are passionate, and the most passionate of all in this case is F. Murray Abraham, who is willing to fork over a ton of cash for a stamp he will never be able to admit owning. He is brittle and cutthroat and makes you glad you are not on the other end of the negotiation.

On the other end is Allison Pill, giving another of her cardboard performances. It’s not an easy part, and it’s to be played by a young woman (what a surprise), but it takes Pill awhile to get all her pistons in motion so that the dialogue comes out as something more than reading a manual on how to take apart, say, a stove cover.

Her stepsister, played by Katie Finneran, is the one to watch, and really the center of this play. Steady in her belief that the stamps belong to her because she her grandfather’s blood relative, she breezes past the fact that she was not the caregiver to their mother during her long illness. She flattens Pill’s supplications for compassion and honor and claims the stamps as her own, period. Her clarity sends a ice pick through Pill’s heart and will come within inches of your own. It is a chilling, spectacular performance.

Bobby Cannavale is the completely charming wheeler-dealer, one of those guys who lets you know he is hustling you and then makes you question whether he’s serious. Part weasel, part fox, part golden retriever, he knows just when to let the line out and when to reel you in.

The most unsatisfying element in this production is the direction. Doug Hughes’s one-dimensional vision is broken up only by John Lee Beatty’s extraordinary, shifting set. From the opening scene, in which he has Dylan Baker completely ignore Ms. Pill’s inquiries in a manner that makes no sense for a man in the business of valuing stamps and is never otherwise justified by the text, we are led through one awkward scene after another. The blocking process appears to have been halted midway through rehearsal, the actors left marooned on the set, shouting out their lines from odd locations.

This isn’t as tight a play as Rebeck’s The Scene, which was at Second Stage last season, but in spite of its flaws, the various pieces of the pie make Mauritius a compelling night at the theater.

Mauritius by Theresa Rebeck, directed by Doug Hughes. WITH: F. Murray Abraham (Sterling), Dylan Baker (Philip), Bobby Cannavale (Dennis), Katie Finneran (Mary) and Alison Pill (Jackie). Sets by John Lee Beatty; costumes by Catherine Zuber; lighting by Paul Gallo; original music and sound by David Van Tieghem. Presented by the Manhattan Theater Club. At the Biltmore Theater, 261 West 47 St., Manhattan, (212) 239-6200. Through Nov. 25. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.

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