Old Stamping Grounds

Whether new plays or revivals, Broadway shows seem to be singing familiar tunes

If you ever collected stamps, even unseriously, the name Mauritius means only one thing: a pair of 1847 stamps, a 1-penny orange and a 2-penny blue, bearing the head of Queen Victoria, on which the words "Post Office" are printed in error for "Post Paid." No doubt the actual island of Mauritius, a former British colony in the Indian Ocean, has many other interesting aspects, some of which are enumerated in Theresa Rebeck's new play of the same name, but those two tiny stamps, which sell for staggering sums when found, are the only Mauritian artifacts that stamp collectors care about.

How much you care about Rebeck's play may well depend on your interest in matters philatelic, since the taut two-act drama, though more tidily shaped than most of her works, is just another of those pieces of contrivance, all too common onstage these days, in which the characters and their relations to one another— you know, drama—have no particular interest. For Rebeck, the sedate world of stamp collecting is merely a genteel, upscale version of the Mafia. Nobody's trustworthy; everybody's working a scam; everybody turns vicious when aroused; every proposal comes with a hidden agenda attached. Transposed to the world of watermarks and mint plate blocks, this view just seems silly. Probably there are collectors who get intense, even violent, about rare stamps; no doubt the high prices they're willing to pay tempt some dealers into crookedness. Crooks exist in the world of collectibles—a Munch painting or a Cellini saltcellar gets snatched from a museum; a dealer in rare maps gets caught slicing prize specimens out of ancient tomes in a library—but if every aficionado were one, our museums and libraries would be empty by now. More importantly, if everyone in the field were equally unscrupulous, there'd be no point in catching the crooks—and nobody would be interested except the few honest folks with a passion for rare maps or Cellini saltcellars. So, as I said, to enjoy Rebeck's play, you may have to care a lot about philately.

Rebeck tries hard to explain why you should. She gives her seemingly honest stamp dealer (ultimately revealed to be as crooked as everyone else) an impassioned aria about why these particular copies of the penny orange and twopenny blue belong in a public institution. "Those stamps belong to the world," he proclaims. But other copies exist, and there's little apart from their scarcity to make the world care about these two bits of machine-printed paper disfigured by an engraver's error. They can actually be scrutinized most fully in blowup photographs, something you could hardly say about the only surviving specimen of Cellini's goldsmithing.

What have you done for me philately? F. Murray Abraham and Bobby Cannavale in Mauritius
Joan Marcus
What have you done for me philately? F. Murray Abraham and Bobby Cannavale in Mauritius

Details

Mauritius
By Theresa Rebeck
MTC/Biltmore Theatre
261 West 47th Street
212-239-6200

The Ritz
By Terrence McNally
Roundabout/Studio 54
254 West 54th Street
212-719-1300

Forbidden Broadway: Rude Awakening
By Gerard Alessandrini
47th Street Theatre
304 West 47th Street
212-239-6200

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The people squabbling over Rebeck's rare stamps are grouped by gender: Two half-sisters (Allison Pill and Katie Finneran) have rival claims to own the collection, originally assembled by the grandfather of one and now part of their just-deceased mother's estate. When Pill brings the collection to a snooty stamp dealer (Dylan Baker) for appraisal, the dealer, a hanger-on in his shop (Bobby Cannavale), and an obnoxious wealthy customer (F. Murray Abraham) all leap into what quickly becomes an overwrought psychological game of who'll-get-the-album. The dramatic model, all too evident in the snapping speech rhythms, is Mamet's American Buffalo, in which three lowlife guys contend for a rare coin. But Mamet's guys are bound in a twisty longtime relationship; in Rebeck's work, neither the half-sib gals nor the stamp-fiend guys share any connection beyond simple loathing. The bad blood in both sets is ancient history, about which we learn next to nothing.

Matching Rebeck's Mamet-inspired tidiness of structure, Doug Hughes has staged Mauritius neatly, albeit hyperkinetically. (The bursts of Mametian violence look even more unlikely on John Lee Beatty's inviting stamp-store set—an improb- ably elegant location for a dealer who apparently has zero customers.) Except for Baker, who for some reason overacts outrageously, the cast performs with appropriate snap and verve. But, as ever, Rebeck has written roles that encourage superficiality. Abraham has repeatedly proven, most recently with his superb Shylock, that he can dig into far more demanding material, but it would be nice to see Pill in particular try something more challenging than the grimly contained child-woman we've now seen her play three times in succession. We'd like to learn, too, if Cannavale and Finneran have more in their workbags than the standard-issue charming streetwise rogue and ditzy-but-shrewd bimbette roles that they now slip into like old coats.

The stock roles in Terrence McNally's 1975 farce-comedy The Ritz, now getting its first Broadway revival from the Roundabout, look more like ratty old bathrobes than wearable coats today, and all too many of the actors in Joe Mantello's affable, noisy production behave like old-time Bronx denizens at home in their old bathrobes, yelling out the window at the neighbors. Set in a bathhouse at the height of post-Stonewall promiscuity, The Ritz, which stands up for gay rights while gently exploiting gay stereotypes, seems an odd choice for revival: The shadow of AIDS, which killed that era's joyous frenzy along with far too many of its celebrants, hangs over the evening; so does the shadow of the late Robert Drivas's delicious original production, lodged in many theatergoers' living memories, which masked the script's dramaturgically flimsy contrivances with lovably funny, endearingly outrageous work by performers like Rita Moreno and Jack Weston.

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