Who knew people could get so worked up about stamps? That's just one reaction to Theresa Rebeck's new play, in which two sisters and three male philatelists get very worked up about a valuable stamp collection. There's scheming, cheating, stealing, betrayal, and even punching and slapping. While Mauritius contains a few plot points that strain credulity, it's far more entertaining than one would expect a play about stamps to be.
The collection in question apparently belongs to the young Jackie (Alison Pill), who inherited it from her recently deceased mother. She takes the stamps to an expert, Philip (Dylan Baker), who is so jaded that he doesn't bother to look at them. Another stamp lover, Dennis (Bobby Cannavale), does look them over and notices two extremely rare stamps from Mauritius, the island in the Indian Ocean that was once part of the British Empire. He tells a wealthy stamp collector named Sterling (F. Murray Abraham) about the find, and after initially expressing skepticism Sterling is determined to own the stamps. Complicating matters is the fact that Jackie's older half-sister, Mary (Katie Finneran), says the collection belongs to her.
Rebeck (Bad Dates, The Family of Mann) deftly whips up intrigue, throws in plot twists, and combines humor with tension. The five characters are compelling-each damaged in some way, especially the down-and-out Jackie-but some of their actions are hard to swallow. Would Philip really not even look at the book when Dennis says there are remarkable stamps in it? And would Jackie really take the book to meet strange men at night when she knows the stamps could be worth millions of dollars and the men will do anything to get their hands on them? Probably not. But it's the characters' desperate, impassioned, at times implausible actions that give Mauritius its entertainment value.
Doug Hughes' direction accentuates the characters' extreme, often bad, behavior. Baker could tone down his irritability and rudeness in the opening scene, and Abraham has over-the-top moments in the second act. Cannavale makes Dennis a charming conniver, though, and both Pill and Finneran are convincing as the very different half-sisters.
Although the physical violence could be staged better and there are unintentionally funny bits of dialogue, the overheated yet absorbing Mauritius is never dull. In Rebeck's hands, the zealous pursuit of stamps is almost too dramatic, which is better than not being dramatic at all.