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fat MTC's Biltmore Theatre

Mauritius is an island in the Indian Ocean that takes its name from a Stadtholder of the Netherlands, Maurice of Nassau. When the British took Mauritius from the French during the Napoleonic Wars, they agreed to preserve its (by then) French culture, which persists to this day. The postal system, however, was altogether English, and it soon took its place in the vanguard of philatelic error. The famous, so-called "Post Office" (or "Blue Penny") stamps of 1847 are today worth millions of dollars.

Mauritius is also a beautiful tropical island with sandy beaches &c. It is the stereotypical dream destination for anyone living a drab life in a cheerless American city. Theresa Rebeck's new play, Mauritius, imagines a young woman who lives such a life and who plans to escape to such an island on the proceeds of the sale of one or two of the famous stamps, which have come into her possession. How the stamps come into her possession is a story of family secrets; how they leave it is the story of a con. Ms Rebeck's play bounces energetically between its two stories, generating memorable roles along the way, but without affording the audience much sense that anything, at the end, has been accomplished. While Mauritius lasts, it commands the stage, or at least provides its cast with a vehicle for doing so. But it ends with its puzzles largely unsolved.

Whether this is important is a matter of taste. Family secrets and cons have got to be among the top-five dramatic matrices in today's theatre, and their tropes have become dangerously familiar. Take Mauritius's family story. Two half-sisters, settling the utterly threadbare estate of their mother, who has died of cancer. The sisters have been estranged ever since the elder girl, Mary (Katie Finneran) went off to boarding school and never came back, presumably to avoid the attentions of the father of the younger girl, Jackie (Alison Pill). Among other things, Mary left behind her paternal grandfather's stamp album, something that bound her to "the only real father she ever knew." Now that she has come back to "help" Jackie cope with the debts, she wants the stamp album back, and refuses all appeals to raise much-needed money by selling it.

I have sat through entire plays that explicate this sort of story all by itself. The drama is a series of little pops. One by one, secrets are revealed. Jackie's father molested Mary, for example. Ms Rebeck doesn't have to bother spelling that possibility out, and I was actually rather relieved that she didn't. Even if we can figure out what's going on between the sisters, though, there remains the static charge of hostility between them, something that can't satisfactorily be discharged by the audience's taking reasonable guesses. The logic of the family secrets story demands that the sisters reach a new understanding - through accepting the "truth - of their relationship, and overcoming their respective convictions, at least, that the other is somehow to blame. Mary and Jackie never come anywhere near a "resolution." On the contrary: Mauritius brings them to an implicitly ugly and permanent parting.

Now, take the con story. We have three unscrupulous men on hand, all ready and willing to play Big Bad Wolf to Jackie's initially ingenuous request for information about her stamps. There is Philip (Dylan Baker), a stamp dealer who occupies a dingy office and has very little to sell. Then there's Dennis (Bobby Cannavale), a smooth operator who hangs around Philip's shop. Finally, there is Sterling (F Murray Abraham), an entrepreneur capable of raising the pile of cash with which to buy the priceless stamps. It doesn't matter how insufficient the pile of cash is, because even Jackie is smart enough to know that she's going to be robbed.

The con story is a dramatic shell game. Who knows what? Who's in cahoots with whom? If the possibilities are shuffled with enough dexterity, the audience is distracted from the "obvious" answer to these questions until pregnant suspense comes to term. The characters who smugly thought they knew the score are shown up with a thoroughness that excites truly Bergsonian Schadenfreude. After an hour or so of wrestling with shifting, ever more complicated permutations, the audience is flushed with pleasure by the simple and elegant anatomy of the actual con.

Once again, Ms Rebeck does not follow through. Thus she avoids stepping on an explosive cliché or other overly familiar plot turn and letting the air out of her play. But our faith in the players, which must be tested more or less severely in order for the relief of the final clarification to be truly delightful, all but flatlines. We don't much mind, because, regardless of the exigencies of the family secrets story and the con story, the characters are extremely entertaining. It may not matter to some members of the audience that the stories announced at the beginning of the play remain effectively untold. In general, however, few theatregoers object when plots are resolved with a satisfying ring.

I say that the characters are very entertaining, but it can't be denied that, whether or not as a consequence of Doug Hughes's direction, the men are more entertaining than the women. Ms Pill, who is still quite young, sounds to me to be in need of some intensive vocal coaching. As I heard her, she shouted most of her lines, just to be heard.* It is easy to imagine her making a great success of the role in the intimacy of a sound stage - and disappointing, too, because Ms Pill is an actress of no small promise. Ms Finneran's delivery is more assured, but her role, whether in the writing or the direction, is that of a silly and unsympathetic harpy.

Two of the men in the cast, Mr Abraham and Mr Baker, are old troupers, veterans of many stage productions. Mr Cannavale is well on his way to accruing similar experience. Of the three, he has the golden voice, as nimble as a coloratura soprano's but shaded by an alluring baritone rasp. His Dennis is primarily a wheedler, constitutionally bent to talk people into doing things by recreating, if necessary, their grasp of any given situation. What Jackie correctly sees as a scam Dennis tries to dignify with the name, "commerce." His weakness for euphemism and circumlocution - always delivered with the most sincere brio - are such a joy to try to follow that, so long as he is speaking, it doesn't much matter what the show is supposed to be about. I'm ready for more.

Mr Abraham makes the absolute most of a part that calls for sudden shifts between self-control and abandon. Sterling wants to be a tough guy, but he is afflicted with a sort of intentional Tourette's syndrome that dooms him to the margins where people who regularly lose their grip spend their lives. The sight of those priceless stamps, moreover, brings on dangerous if hilarious coronary palpitations. It is a great shame, dramatically, that Sterling and his Zero Halliburton suitcase escape together instead of being parted. As for Mr Baker, he does well by a small part that, paradoxically, suggests an entirely distinct third story: that of the overlooked expert in search of recognition and/or revenge.

The production, with sets by John Lee Beatty, lights by Paul Gallo, and costumes by Catherine Zuber, is commendable but drab to the point of anachronistic distraction. Does anyone live so exigently today, or maintain so picturesquely seedy an office? Ms Rebeck's dialogue shows her to be thoroughly conversant with mod cons such as the Internet, but her play appears to be set in the first half of the last century. (November 2007)

* Excellent as she was in last season's Blackbird, Ms Pill had the advantage of the smaller and lower-slung Stage I theatre at City Center. The Biltmore Theatre - although gutted and made "smaller," in MTC's renovation, by reducing the number of seats by almost a third - remains a standard Broadway house in terms of cubic feet.

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