Who’s Conning Who? Rebeck Does Mamet Lite

heilpern mauritius1h Who’s Conning Who? Rebeck Does Mamet LiteTheresa Rebeck’s new play Mauritius has just opened at the Biltmore on Broadway—why?

I lose patience with plays like this. I try not to. The prolific Ms. Rebeck—author of last season’s social satire The Scene, and the post-9/11 farce Ominium Gatherum, a Pulitzer Prize contender she co-wrote with Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros—has now written, of all creaky things, a suspense drama. It’s a genre that theater has mostly abandoned to television (where Ms. Rebeck toiled for many years). But if I’m biased against the dated genre—not to mention the talent of the respected playwright herself—there’s one thing on which we can all surely agree: A suspense drama must have suspense.

Mauritius doesn’t have any. It has contrived dramatic tension; it has Serious Undertones (about sibling rivalry, damaged people); it has its moments. There’s a lot going for it: a top director, Doug Hughes of Doubt, and a first-rate cast that includes F. Murray Abraham as a reptilian con man. But I’m sorry, the play is ridiculous.

I surely won’t be alone in pointing out that the plot of Mauritius is a rip-off of David Mamet’s breakthrough American Buffalo (1975): In the Rebeck, three guys are involved in a con game for an invaluable stamp collection; in the Mamet, it’s three guys and an invaluable coin collection. The lowlife similarities are so instantly recognizable—including the pastiche of Mr. Mamet’s signature four-letter style—that it dawned on me that Ms. Rebeck’s new play could be a double bluff: the con game masquerading as homage.

Unless, that is, it’s a triple bluff. The playwright tries to throw us off the scent with her vulnerable heroine, Jackie, who’s strangely attracted to one of the losers who might be conning her; (see the vulnerable heroine strangely attracted to the con artist in Mr. Mamet’s House of Games). Throw in a Glengarry Glen Ross–style disquisition on how to sucker a mark, and Ms. Rebeck’s fulsome Mamet tribute is complete.

Would any of this matter if Mauritius had turned out to be a riveting mystery drama? We’ll never know. The bruised and confused Jackie (played by the talented Alison Pill) has inherited two priceless stamps from Mauritius—described as “the crown jewels of philately”—from her mom, who’s just died. But she doesn’t know their real value. Enter her wicked half-sister, Mary (played by the Tony Award-winning Katie Finneran, who’s wasted in a perilously underwritten role). Manipulative Mary knows crown jewels when she sees them, arguing loudly that she inherited them from her dad. The scenes between the sisters amount to a generalized domestic psychodrama of mutual loathing in which Ms. Rebeck intends the stamps to be some kind of metaphor for human relationships.

If you’ve been studying philately lately, you’ll know that certain stamps can increase in value even though they’re flawed—like people, Ms. Rebeck is saying. (And like plays? The more flawed the play, the better?)

The Mauritius mystery begins with Jackie going off to the office of a surly philatelist (the stalwart Dylan Baker) to get the stamps valued. There she meets Dennis, a young shady loser in a leather jacket (the Emmy Award-winning Bobby Cannavale) who knows a thing or two about stamps. Dennis is an accomplice of the killer-shark scam artist, Sterling (F. Murray Abraham), who now goes after the stamps for a bargain price from gullible Jackie. (The excellent Mr. Abraham, exuding evil intent, appears to be playing Barrabas, which he recently did for Theatre for a New Audience in Marlowe’s Jew of Malta.)

I have one word for Jackie: Google.

She could have saved herself a heap of trouble if she’d begun by Googling the price of the stamps, as I’ve just done. “The Island of Mauritius is famous for two of the rarest stamps in the world, the 1847 ‘Post Office’ Penny Orange and Twopence Blue.” In 1993 they were auctioned for over $2 million.

Do you realize what those two stamps would be worth today? “If she goes online, we’re fucked,” says Sterling. That goes for the play, too: The entire premise of Theresa Rebeck’s mystery drama would be fucked if the dramatist hadn’t withheld obvious information. Half the audience is yelling out silently to the naïve, waiflike Jackie: “Google stamps of Mauritius, for God’s sake, and save yourself from the wiles of F. Murray Abraham!”

But the playwright wants to string us along as best she can. Jackie goes online at last toward the end of act one—whereupon she resolves, à la Mamet, to con the con men.