Theresa Rebeck's "Mauritius" -- in which two half-sisters wrangle with three shady dudes over their mother's legacy of vintage stamps -- can be enjoyed for its snappy dialogue and twisty mystery alone.

Theresa Rebeck’s “Mauritius” — in which two half-sisters wrangle with three shady dudes over their mother’s legacy of vintage stamps — can be enjoyed for its snappy dialogue and twisty mystery alone. But even a comic melodrama can yield deeper, more eloquent strains when an exemplary helmer is in charge. Jessica Kubzansky steers this vehicle into a vein of heartfelt musing on loss, regret and entitlement; it’s an altogether exciting, richly rewarding experience.

Rebeck leaves plenty of investigative room for enterprising thesps, barely hinting at the backstories of mom’s longtime caregiver Jackie (Kirsten Kollander) and the freshly returned prodigal Mary (Monette Magrath). Yet as we recognize the fragility of Jackie’s perky aplomb, and sense the price Mary has paid for her tenuous self-possession, fireworks become inevitable once they start sorting through boxes and old slights. (The deceased must’ve been a real piece of work.)

Equally uncertain are the ties binding affable hustler Dennis (Chris L. McKenna) to saturnine millionaire Sterling (a nattily attired Ray Abruzzo). Nor can we quite make out how a woman came between the Armani-clad high roller and misanthropic philatelist Philip (John Billingsley, resembling a rag doll tossed into a corner). Still, the scent of murky mischief and bad blood practically wafts into the house.

The burning fuses here are the “crown jewels of philately,” irregular 19th century stamps issued by the British Crown Colony of Mauritius. A priceless pair have been mounted in an album compiled by Mary’s grandfather, promised to Jackie by the dying matriarch and coveted by the men. Authenticity, provenance and value are the agenda topics, but mutual desperation is the order of the day.

The whole situation smacks of Mamet Country, and when pressed, Rebeck can construct Mametian capitalist arias with the best of them to run rings around straight talk. (“You said what you needed to say, and I did what I needed to do, and now I know you’re not going to let me do that, which is a good thing to know.”)

But the artificiality quickly gives way to genuine emotional need, and that’s where Kubzansky excels. She beautifully shapes business, blocking and pacing to reveal the naked vulnerability beneath all the acquisitive energy.

Watch the play of thoughts as Kollander counts a wad of cash with a thoroughness Silas Marner would envy, or the skillful ways in which McKenna has Dennis’ bravado drop out and restore itself, often in mid-sentence.

Even in the more outwardly controlled characters, we’re led to see a yearning for an exotic Mauritius of the soul in which unimaginable wealth and serenity are there for the taking. It’s all summed up in the magic talisman of that stamp album — just the right shade of red to capture attention, and inspiring audible audience gasps when it’s manhandled or left up for grabs.

Tech elements all make essential contributions. The exquisite crumminess of Philip’s office and Jackie’s home, detailed by Tom Buderwitz, is mute testimony to the characters’ need to break free.

Trumping realism, Jaymi Lee Smith’s lighting effects cast shadows or increase illumination to reflect the negotiations’ delicate progress.

Maggie Morgan’s costumes pinpoint relevant class distinctions, leveled by Tim Weiske’s believably life-and-death fights.

And the tubular bells of John Zalewski’s original score link the scene changes in a spooky wash of longing. As the climax looms, one note is faintly repeated, evoking both a ticking clock and a heart monitor. It isn’t realistic, but it serves to make the final confrontation that much more urgently real.

Mauritius

Pasadena Playhouse; 686 seats; $67 top

Production

A Pasadena Playhouse presentation of a play in two acts by Theresa Rebeck. Directed by Jessica Kubzansky.

Creative

Sets, Tom Buderwitz; costumes, Maggie Morgan; lighting, Jaymi Lee Smith; original music and sound, John Zalewski; fight choreographer, Tim Weiske; production stage manager, Jill Gold. Opened, reviewed April 3, 2009. Runs through April 26. Running time: 2 HOURS, 25 MIN.

Cast

Jackie - Kirsten Kollender Philip - John Billingsley Dennis - Chris L. McKenna Sterling - Ray Abruzzo Mary - Monette Magrath

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