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Review: 'Mauritius' at Pasadena Playhouse

April 5, 2009 |  3:48 pm

Maruitius

A thriller about a stamp collection? Well, "thriller" might be overstating matters, but in “Mauritius,” playwright Theresa Rebeck manages to create taut dramatic intrigue over what one character calls “the crown jewel of philately” — two exceedingly rare stamps from the eponymous African island that could set one up comfortably for life in a beachfront shack in Malibu.

The start of Rebeck’s unlikely drama, which opened Friday at Pasadena Playhouse, is slow and the production, directed by the reliable Jessica Kubzansky, has its share of bumpy moments. But the work draws you in with its twists and turns. Theatrical suspense is so rarely experienced in this technology-spiked, post-everything century that it’s important to credit its deft deployment, even if the play doesn’t fulfill its promise in other areas.

Beyond its tense architectonics, “Mauritius” is notable for introducing two female characters who want to swim with the Mamet-like sharks. Jackie (Kirsten Kollender) and her half-sister Mary (Monette Magrath), reunited after the death of their mother, are quietly but fiercely contesting the inheritance of the collection, which includes those two extraordinary stamps.

Tired of always getting the short end of the stick, Jackie feels entitled to this heirloom trove because she cared for her mother through her terminal illness. But prim and grasping Mary, who left for boarding school when she was young and never looked back, thinks it should be hers because it originally belonged to her grandfather.

Circling around these squabbling siblings are three mercenary philatelists, who are after those one- and two-cent Mauritian stamps, which a silly printer’s error has turned into a gold mine.

Philip (a suitably rumpled John Billingsley) is the expert stamp-shop owner who refuses to appraise anything unless Jackie forks over a couple of grand. Dennis (a puppyishly appealing Chris L. McKenna), a hanger-on at the shop who’s ever-ready for a deal, is convinced that Jackie is holding on to something precious and is prepared to pounce. And Sterling (an especially vivid Ray Abruzzo) is the dangerous moneyman (“You know, real estate, corporate merger-type, governmental arms deals, that sort of thing,” Dennis explains to Jackie.) who arrives with a suitcase full of cash and the expectation that everyone will roll over and play dead.

When “Mauritius” premiered on Broadway in 2007, the work was dismissed by some critics as an “American Buffalo” knockoff, with some estrogen added to Mamet’s customary testosterone boil. The parallel situation of the two plays is clear enough: The junk shop denizens of “American Buffalo” are scheming to steal a valuable coin collection, while the characters of “Mauritius” are vying for a book of stamps whose presumed value keeps rising even as questions about ownership and authenticity go unanswered.

But plot isn’t what makes Mamet Mamet. And it’s not entirely fair to fault Rebeck for borrowing a setup when her style doesn’t otherwise have a lot in common with a dramatist who gets his kicks from verbal cocaine.

A well-packaged story and some fresh takes on familiar figures are more Rebeck’s bent, which shouldn’t be surprising given her background as a writer and producer on “NYPD Blue” and “Law & Order: Criminal Intent,” among other television credits. She’s clearly learned a thing or two about steady pacing and quick-sketch characterization from the small screen. On the downside, she’s guilty of that tried-and-true TV practice of hinting at depths while remaining in the shallows.

Indeed, the story line of “Mauritius” is more intricately worked out than its metaphoric meanings. The chess match to maximize profit over the stamps is meant to shed light on the sisters’ conflict about their own damaged worth. Jackie, who hints at an abusive past, knows that she’s been under-appreciated by the world, and is not about to let her self-serving sister (played with Laura Linney coolness by Magrath) or a cabal of crooks cheat her out of her chance at redemption.

But Rebeck’s characters get squeezed out by all the dramatic reversals, and the language that they’re given is better at propelling the action forward than exposing psychological truths. As a result, the actors, who are generally effective, occasionally become over-emphatic, particularly Kollender, whose role is forever amping up in unexpectedly aggressive directions.

The sets, designed by Tom Buderwitz in a realistic manner with poetic touches, establishes a handsome ground for the ensuing games. The foxy maneuvers and counter-maneuvers may be ultimately more diverting than revelatory, but “Mauritius” ensnares us in the tricky pursuit of genuine value.

-- Charles McNulty

"Mauritius," Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena; 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 4 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; call for exceptions; ends April 26; $32 to $67; (626) 356-7529
Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes

 Photo: Kirsten Kollender, left, and Monette Magrath. Credit: Spencer Weiner

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