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Perfection Would Be Boring

Theresa Rebeck melds Mamet-like thugs and her trademark family feuds in a play that's flawed but fun.

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MAURITIUS Northlight Theatre

New Yorker critic John Lahr caused a mini-furor in 2007 when he dismissed Theresa Rebeck's Mauritius as "Mamet for girls." It was a stupid and lazy comment for lots of reasons, aside from the obvious—and oh-so-tired—male condescension. (If Rebeck had written about hapless thugs trying to steal a priceless collection of My Little Pony figurines, Lahr might've had a point.) While there are undeniable similarities between Rebeck's play—set in the unlikely world of stamp collecting—and David Mamet's American Buffalo, what's more interesting is how they differ.

For starters, the thugs actually know what they're talking about in Rebeck's play, now getting its local premiere at Northlight Theatre under Rick Snyder's crafty direction. The title refers to the rarest stamps in the world: the one- and two-penny "post office" issues, printed when Mauritius, a speck in the Indian Ocean, east of Madagascar, belonged to the British Empire. Like most philatelic treasures, these two are valuable because they're flawed—they were supposed to say "post paid," not "post office." Rebeck's point—which gets made a few too many times—is that we humans fail to value each other's intriguing flaws the way we value those of stamps.

It's hard to imagine Teach and Donnie in American Buffalo rhapsodizing over anything other than the resale value of the rare nickel that gives that Mamet play its title. But in Rebeck's world, the stamp shop run by the dyspeptic Philip (Gary Houston) is an island of specialized knowledge and fetishistic obsession, where the mere act of touching a unique stamp creates jealousy and tension, and amateurs are held in disdain. Philip won't even look at the collection brought in by hard-luck Jackie (Anne Adams) unless she can fork over a couple thousand to make it worth his while. It's his hustling young acolyte, Dennis (Dan Kuhlman), who discovers the value of Jackie's treasure and, eventually, of the woman herself.

Jackie found the stamp collection in the detritus left behind by her dead mother, whom she nursed for years after her older half sister Mary (Suzanne Lang) either ran away from or was pushed out of the family. (Rebeck is frustratingly vague on the details.) Mary claims the collection, originally assembled by her biological grandfather, as her inheritance; Jackie sees it as her reward for performing her filial duties, and a way off the financial precipice she's been dangling from for years. Dennis, meanwhile, lures Sterling (Lance Baker)—an intimidating greaseball who nonetheless appreciates the sheer beauty of stamps—into a scheme to buy the collection from Jackie without Mary's knowledge.

From there, a series of double- and triple-crosses unfold. There's even a disturbing, violent, and decidedly un-girlish fight in the second act that beats anything you see onstage in American Buffalo.

If anything, Rebeck could be accused of cribbing off herself in Mauritius. At least two of her earlier plays—1998's Abstract Expression and 2001's The Butterfly Collection—delve into similar territory, with family feuds about material objects standing in for emotional transactions. The brother and sister in Abstract Expression argue over what to do with the canvases of their nasty, neglectful father, whose death has caused his paintings to soar in value, and the title of The Butterfly Collection comes from another family's stories about a doomed lepidopterist in the Great Depression. Images of angels and flight (Jackie imagines herself sprouting buglike wings and taking off for a beach) show up in Rebeck's earlier plays, too.

In Mauritius, Rebeck—who's written extensively for the USA Network's Law & Order: Criminal Intent—attempts to weave the familiar tropes of the siblings-fighting-over-mom's-freshly-dug-grave scenario together with a noir crime caper. The bifurcated nature of the story is captured by Tom Burch's spare, rotating set: on one side, the gray and gloomy world of Philip's shop, where a single glass display case provides the only constant illumination; on the other, the jumbled mess of the down-at-heels home Jackie shared with her mom, where something far darker than high-stakes stamp stealing may have taken place. It's interesting that the family-drama portion of the play—a world wholly absent from American Buffalo—is ignored in Lahr's dismissal of Mauritius (maybe because he figured domestic drama is something only girls care about).

Much of Mauritius is exhilarating—particularly as staged by Snyder, who, like his fellow Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble member Amy Morton, has demonstrated in recent years how well he can mold the performances of other actors. But the connective tissue between the play's two worlds—the living-room and the House of Games—falls slack at times. Certain elements simply don't compute. Though Jackie has gone online to find out what the stamps are worth, she doesn't seem to have followed through by calling other potential buyers, as a safeguard against being swindled. And in fairness to Lahr, certain locutions in Rebeck's script sound awfully Mamet-like, as when Sterling, channeling Ricky Roma from Glengarry Glen Ross, tells Dennis, "You ask yourself what do you want out of life? I advise you. At moments like this, you are stepping out over the abyss, for what?"

But as long as one doesn't expect stunning insights or airtight dramaturgical logic, there's a lot of fun to be had here. Adams is a pugnacious but vulnerable Jackie, and earns Dennis's admiring assessment of the character as an "interesting girl." Lang's irritatingly smug demeanor—which at first reminded me of Samantha Bee's know-nothing correspondent on The Daily Show—gives her less room to grow. But, despite Rebeck's skimpy backstory, I felt flashes of sympathy for her Mary as well.

Baker and Houston take what could be irritating stereotypes of the Thug and the Aging Geek and make them highly watchable (Houston, in particular, has a ball with his irascible coot). And even though the cat-and-mouse game between Adams and Baker in the second act feels familiar, one of the players being a seemingly uninformed young woman adds suspense.

On opening night, Kuhlman seemed at points to have trouble nailing down Dennis's motivations. But his performance may find its groove as the show develops.

Masterpiece? No way. Unlike the flaws in the Mauritian "post office" stamps, those in Rebeck's slick but self-conscious script don't add to its value. But like many lesser stamps, it delivers the contents in a timely and satisfying manner. Even boys might like it.v

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