Alison Pill and Bobby Cannavale in Mauritius
(© Joan Marcus)
Alison Pill and Bobby Cannavale in Mauritius
(© Joan Marcus)
Theresa Rebeck writes some of the most vividly realized characters in contemporary theater, but too often, she has them make unbelievably bad or improbable choices or subjects them to plot twists that are only clever to anyone who hasn't actually been to the theater. Unfortunately, both of these flaws are evident in Mauritius, which opens Manhattan Theatre Club's 2007 Broadway season at the Biltmore Theater.

But here's the good news: These problems seem a lot less glaring in this entertaining and often smart play than in such recent Rebeck works as The Scene or The Water's Edge (in which that on-stage bathtub signaled the ending from the very start). And thanks to the extraordinary performances of its five-member cast -- Alison Pill, Bobby Cannavale, Katie Finneran, Dylan Baker, and F. Murray Abraham -- and the impeccable direction of Tony Award winner Doug Hughes, you might not even notice the play's imperfections.

That statement is a tad ironic, since Mauritius, first seen last year at Boston's Huntington Theatre in an entirely different production, is actually about how we value imperfections. Venturing into David Mamet's territory, complete with tons of profanity, Rebeck creates a quintet of less-than-lovable characters competing for the same prize: a stamp collection containing the extremely rare "Post Office" stamps issued by the tiny African island of Mauritius in the 1800s.

Legally, the collection belongs to both down-on-her-luck Jackie (Pill) and her more affluent half-sister Mary (Finneran), since their mother has recently died, evidently without a will. But each stake their own claim; Jackie on physical possession and financial need and Mary on the fact that the collection was created by her grandfather -- not Jackie's. Desperate for money, and completely unaware of the collection's value at first, Jackie pays a visit to dismissive dealer Philip (Baker). While being ignored by him at his shop (nicely designed by the inventive John Lee Beatty), she encounters the charming if unsophisticated Dennis (Cannavale), whose job is to sniff out ultra-valuable stamps for his super-rich and extremely violent boss Sterling (Abraham). As soon as he sees the Mauritius stamps, he's determined to get them for Sterling, no matter which sister he has to make nice to. But once Jackie wises up, the task becomes far more difficult.

By and large, Mauritius is meant to be little more than a diversion -- a kind of theatrical wrestling match where one can relish in the constant power-struggle reversals. But Rebeck also has some valid points to make about the nature of "value" in society. As she repeatedly reminds us, it's the errors in the Mauritius stamps that make them more valuable than unblemished ones.

Nowhere is that message made clearer than in the characters of Jackie and Dennis. She's a possible thief, he's a definite con artist, and yet they are the two people on stage whom Rebeck treats with more love and respect than anyone else. Her cause is helped immeasurably by the uncompromising and heartbreaking Pill, who adds yet another indelible portrait to her repertoire after Blackbird and The Lieutenant of Inishmore, and the impossibly charismatic Cannavale, who makes Dennis the kind of guy you want to take home to mother, even though you know you'd need to lock up the silver first.

This pitch-perfect pair are hardly acting in a vacuum. Abraham, too long absent from the Broadway stage, effortlessly manages to steal his scenes as the menacing-if-still-gentlemanly Sterling. In his oversized sweater (the fine costumes are by Catherine Zuber) and using a sing-songy vocal delivery, Baker turns Philip into the kind of smug expert you want to smack silly. (He could also be the brother of Drowsy Chaperone's Man in Chair.) Finneran has perhaps the hardest task with Mary. She would be the character one expects to root for, but Rebeck makes her both snobbish and stupid, thereby alienating most if not all of the audience. Still, this gifted actress commits fully to her choices.

Mauritius is likely to have a long future in regional and community theater. But if you can, see it at the Biltmore, since a production this good is unlikely to be duplicated.