Thursday, September 13, 2007

Two Stamp Monte

"Mauritius" presented by Manhattan Theatre Club at the Biltmore Theatre, September 13, 2007

Theresa Rebeck's latest effort has begun performances at Manhattan Theatre Club. With an impressive cast, and some occasionally good scenes, the result is pretty much a cable "dramedy" (hence the pointless profanity) disguised as theatre.

I missed "The Scene" last season, but did suffer through "The Water's Edge." The mixed reviews from TS, combined with MTC's willingness to produce her on B'way gave me hope that Ms. Rebeck was hitting her stride as a playwright. I think MTC would have been wiser to produce this one at City Center and saved their big stage for better material. Sorry to see them with another miss, right on the heels of "Lovemusik."

Now, I do realize that I saw the very first preview performance and likely was one of the first run-throughs this cast has had with a sizeable audience. That said, I will proceed.

Jackie (Alison Pill) whose mother has just died after what was apparently a difficult period emotionally and financially. Among her effects are a stamp collection compiled by her late father-in-law. Jackie's half-sister Mary (Katie Finneran) has arrived after fleeing the home as a teenager, leaving Jackie to deal with the fallout.

Driving the title of the play are a couple of particularly valuable stamps, printed with errors during the reign of Queen Victoria on the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Madagascar. The pair could be worth more than $6 million. Jackie arrives at the stamp shop of Phil (Dylan Baker) to see about getting an idea of how much the collection might be worth.

Yes, that's Phil the philatelist.

Lurking about the store is Dennis (Bobby Cannavale), a somewhat shady dabbler in the stamp trade. He spots the opportunity to scam Jackie on her stamps, hoping to set her up with Sterling (F. Murray Abraham), an equally shady dabbler in the stamp trade, but with the cash to back it up.

Yes, Sterling is the man with the money.

Scams and double-crosses are attempted and exposed. Jackie slugs Mary. Sterling slugs and chokes Jackie. Sterling slugs Dennis. One could only hope that hilarity would ensue, but it's just not that funny.

As Jackie, Ms Pill is at first unsure and awkward, wavering in whatever direction she's pushed by whomever she's talking to. She does find some strength as events transpire, finding a bit of backbone that seems to come out of nowhere. She plays what she's given, but the character has been drawn a bit thin.

Katie Finneran as half-sister Mary, suffers with even less to work with. I should have counted how many times she said "He was my grandfather" in comparison to how many other lines she had. I'm gonna guess the ratio was just under 40%, but Ms. Finneran did her best to bring some kind of interest to the vapid role.

Dylan Baker's Phil is self-important and elitist with little to support it. He sneers and snubs sufficiently.

Bobby Cannavale, in his Broadway debut, charms as Dennis, but I was never really sure what his character wanted out of the transaction. I can only presume he was looking for a cut/commission on the sale of the stamps, but that part was never made clear. Beyond that, he was merely a device to facilitate the plot.

The real question is: What is F. Murry Abraham doing in this mess? Is this role his attempt to transform his image like Ben Kingsley did in "Sexy Beast?" If so, I don't think this will be the vehicle to accomplish that. He's much better than his material here, but even then can't bring the play much above mediocrity.

Doug Hughes has assembled a fine cast of very talented actors, and seems to have worked pretty hard to make the play enjoyable. The material just doesn't provide enough of a foundation to make any magic.

Catherine Zuber's talents go wasted (though I did think putting Sterling in a shiny, silver, sharkskin suit was an excellent touch), as do John Lee Beatty's excellent sets. He really has done a nice job exploiting the double turntables at the Biltmore. Paul Gallo's industrial and intrusive light towers overwhelm the delicate proscenium - does a play like that really require so many instruments to light it effectively?

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