The passionate pastime of generations of obsessive nerds acquires new credibility in “Mauritius,” in which philately becomes the unlikely terrain for sly humor and suspenseful conflict. Theresa Rebeck’s capably constructed quasi-thriller is an entertaining account of two estranged half-sisters locking horns over their inheritance of a pair of rare stamps from the eponymous isle. While it touches on how the errors of the past yield value and meaning in the present, there’s not a lot going on behind the surface smarts. But the play is witty and absorbing, its virtues enhanced by Doug Hughes’ crisp direction of an accomplished cast.
Unsurprisingly for a writer with extensive experience in TV police procedurals like “NYPD Blue” and “Law & Order: Criminal Intent,” one of Rebeck’s strengths is her skill at stitching tension into every exchange. The five characters in “Mauritius” pair up and face off in shifting configurations, the emotionally fraught edges of their twisty encounters made all the more intriguing by the fact that items as apparently innocuous as postage stamps fuel the friction.
Even within the ranks of nerd-dom, stamp collecting seems unhip, its currency beyond old codgers, hardcore collectors and dealers no doubt eroded by the gradual replacement of traditional snail mail with email, text messages and other instant communication modes. But while establishing — via John Lee Beatty’s artfully aged set and Paul Gallo’s grubby chiaroscuro lighting — the world of philately as a place of dusty inertia, Rebeck also makes it into a high-stakes game.
Underlining the echoes of David Mamet’s “American Buffalo,” that rarefied sphere is represented by three distinct characters: Philip (Dylan Baker) is a pompous expert, miserably weary of folks wandering into his shop hoping to make money off their dead relatives’ stamp albums. Dennis (Bobby Cannavale) is a young opportunist lurking on the fringes while keeping an eye open for a potential deal. Sterling (F. Murray Abraham) is a wealthy thug, a foul-mouthed, shady operator who derives almost sensual pleasure from his love of rare stamps.
All three men are thrown into cahoots and competition when young stranger Jackie (Alison Pill) turns up at Philip’s store with a collection that had been in her recently deceased mother’s possession. Among the contents are the fabled, historically flawed one- and two-penny Mauritius stamps. Considered the crown jewels of philately, they stand to fetch as much as $6 million.
Having proved herself a resourceful actress of lively intelligence and dark depths in “The Lieutenant of Inishmore” and “Blackbird,” Pill hits the repeat button here to some extent, channeling sympathetic surliness and a physicality more commanding than her diminutive size would indicate.
Jackie babbles nervously in the opening scene, conveying the false impression that she’s the kind of clueless customer Philip loathes. “Does this look like ‘Antiques Roadshow’ to you?” he sneers impatiently. “The girl is a lamb,” Dennis assures Sterling after having eyed the prize. But Jackie reveals herself to be anything but.
Her attempt to sell the stamps to Sterling, using Dennis as a middleman, is complicated by Jackie’s seemingly more well-adjusted, older half-sister Mary (a slightly mannered Katie Finneran), who fled to boarding school as a teenager and never looked back.
While Jackie wants to clear the family’s debts and erase the painful past, Mary feels the stamp collection is hers, given that its original owner was her paternal grandfather. Her correct perception that Jackie has no interest in the stamps themselves, only in the money they can generate, adds to her superior attitude toward troubled baby sis and to the righteousness of her ownership claim.
In addition to the effects of Mary having abandoned Jackie to cope alone with their difficult mother, there’s bad blood between the sisters only hinted at by Rebeck. Likewise, Philip’s long-standing grievance against Sterling is mentioned but never elucidated. The playwright’s point may be that the precise nature of past wrongs is irrelevant but their impact remains undimmed. Nonetheless, the reluctance to fill in the blanks robs the relationships of texture.
Hughes keeps the action humming along at a sustained clip, making good use of Beatty’s twin turntables to accelerate the flow. The director steers his actors to heighten the tense interplay while never losing sight of the humor, particularly in the sisters’ clashes and in Jackie and Sterling’s protracted negotiations.
In the latter scene, Pill’s damaged intensity is well matched with Abraham’s malevolent glower and dangerous volatility. He’s at his most amusing when the unceremonious Sterling stops buttering Jackie up and steps back to reassess her, admiring her refusal to be intimidated.
Baker also scores with a character whose initial correctness gives way to crafty moves, illustrating that no one here should be taken at face value. And in the production’s funniest, most keenly balanced performance, Cannavale turns on the charm as shyster Dennis, never fully aware of his innate goofiness.
Like Dennis, “Mauritius” isn’t quite as clever as it sometimes seems, the playwright’s examination of ownership, greed, value and even family relationships never going beyond lip service. Rebeck teases the audience by applying a double edge to each of the characters and an element of uncertainty both to their allegiances and to the authenticity of the stamps.
But there are too many unanswered questions that resonate, post-curtain, as plot holes. The play’s conclusion also could be more satisfying, making Rebeck’s first excursion to Broadway slick and diverting but ultimately hollow.