Theater archives

Old Stamping Grounds


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.

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.

Not that Mantello’s evening wholly lacks endearing moments: Kevin Chamberlin, though about as Italian-American as egg salad on Wonder bread, invests the hero with a wistfully elephantine pathos. Brooks Ashmanskas supplies both reality and drollery as the house’s campiest customer (a role created, memorably, by F. Murray Abraham). And if you can forget the unforgettable Moreno for a moment, Rosie Perez has a sweetly feisty appeal that, like McNally’s comic asides, charms you just enough to keep the evening rolling.

The wrinkles that now edge Forbidden Broadway‘s impudent grin have an old, familiar look too, but that’s as much Broadway’s fault as Gerard Alessandrini’s. Quite simply, there’s nothing new to ridicule on Broadway, so in the revue’s latest edition, subtitled Rude Awakening, writer and co-director Alessandrini lets his ill temper show through, with parody after parody excoriating the money-hungry producers who’ve turned the big street into “Dumber Broadway” (Grease‘s “Summer Lovin'”) by putting up TV-star-laden shows for “Slow People” (“Show People” from Curtains). The old Les Miz parody, like the original, is back; spoofs of Grey Gardens‘s “Revolutionary Costume” and Cole Porter’s “Please Don’t Monkey With Broadway” virtually echo rather than parody the originals’ sentiments. Aside from a genuinely witty spoof of the Company revival, even the revue’s usually acute physical mimicry seems blurrier. If Broadway keeps spiralling downward, Alessandrini may be forced to try his hand at political satire. Are we ready for Forbidden Cheney?