Theresa 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.
A couple of smackdowns liven things up a bit—Jackie flattens big sis with a punch to the jaw, and we’re meant to feel glad. (We do.) Mr. Abraham’s frustrated Sterling beats up the newly manipulative Jackie, and we’re meant to feel shocked. (We don’t. Well, I didn’t.) In any case he apologizes sweetly, which makes everything okay.
I hope I’m not spoiling anything for you by adding that everyone in this cast of familiar characters double-crosses everyone else, and that nothing actually makes any sense you’d care a jot about. Mauritius, the ersatz David Mamet drama, ends up as a lame comedy caper, with happy ending attached.
HOWARD BARKER, LITTLE KNOWN YET highly acclaimed, is being given an ambitious showcase by an adventurous troupe that’s new to me. The Inner Circle Theatre Company’s New York premiere of his 1987 The Possibilities reminds us of the uncompromised possibilities of theater itself.
Mr. Barker is one of the post-Osborne generation of British playwrights that includes activists such as Edward Bond, David Edgar and Howard Brenton. Mr. Barker’s urgent polemical essays about theater damn the commercial bourgeois dramas of no surprises (and happy endings), while taking no prisoners in his opposition to the liberal pieties that merely comfort or preach to the choir. His fierce intelligence and talent aren’t without humor, but he doesn’t see life as a comedy. (Even Chekhov is too sentimental for him.)
Mr. Barker is a playwright who believes in the darker places of the soul, in moral speculation and ambiguity, in confronting the pain of being alive. In his stories and fables, he’s daring to reinvent the theater experience.
The 10 short plays in the The Possibilities evening at the Sargent Theatre on West 54th Street are outwardly naïve, timeless parables of war and deception and wounds. In a Middle Eastern war, a weaver ecstatically discovers that real blood dyes wool in a spectacular way—and is killed. A married woman is deceived into opening the door of her home to terrorists. A timorous emperor shits in his pants with fear, but flogs the loyal servant who sympathizes with him. A paranoid hobo is a bookseller convinced that all books will be burned. A torturer, new to town in search of confessions, not truth, rents a room. The biblical story of Judith turns into a tale of a woman’s unforeseen, obsessive love for her conquered enemy. A wounded soldier returns home with a sack of severed heads and seduces his wife.
Some of these stories, which have been ably directed by Albert Aeed, work better than others, and some among the committed, multicultural cast need a little more experience. No matter. The veteran actor Angus Hepburn gives a wonderful performance as the deranged bookseller, and we’ve been introduced to Mr. Barker’s compelling, self-described “Theater of Catastrophe.”
This remarkable evening of playlets prepares the way for the Epic Theatre Ensemble’s New York premiere later this month of Howard Barker’s 1992 A Hard Heart, starring Kathleen Chalfant.
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