April 13, 2010

Broadway's Inactive, Interactive Play


By Kurt Brokaw, Culture Editor

It's been over 30 years since David Mamet's riveting drama, "American Buffalo," opened on Broadway with its cast of three hustlers headed by Robert Duvall. You might recall the movie version with Dustin Hoffman, and that the drama's premise centers on a junk shop owner who sells a rare buffalo head nickel for $90 that's really worth around $1,000. Duvall wants to rob the guy who bought it, and his two plug-ugly pals want in on the profits.


In 1975 the value of rare coins, like rare stamps, rare books and dozen of other rare collectibles, was often shrouded in mystery. For coins, you needed to consult a coin catalog (if you could find one) or a numismatic dealer (if you could find one of those). The values of many antiques were not easy to ferret out. Anyway, the buffalo head nickel in Mamet's play worked more like a Hitchcock "McGuffin"--a dramatic device to engineer the three actors into more dangerous conflicts with each other. In the Broadway Playbill for "Mauritius," a new play by Theresa Rebeck that's been one of the few New York stage productions not affected by a union walkout and strike, neither the location of the play nor the year is provided. The major set is a dusty, primitive philatelic shop that looks frozen in time, and its drab and ditsy proprietor (Dylan Baker) initially has next to no interest in the stamp album a bright young 20-something (Alison Pill) brings in for appraisal. She tells him it's an inheritance from a family relative. He asks for a huge fee just to open the album--mind you, this is a standoffish eccentric who has no stamps in evidence in a room that doesn't look like it's had a customer in years.


A second visitor to the shop, a leather-jacketed motormouth (Bobby Cannavale) who seems to know the owner, looks through the album and spots a valuable pair of stamps from the island nation of Mauritius, far off in the Indian ocean. How valuable are they? Neither Alison nor Bobby nor even Dylan appear to have any idea, though Bobby tells us they could be worth a lot, maybe a fortune. Your instincts are up because this feels like the start of a con. (The scene will remind you of the bar episode in another Mamet play, "Glengarry Glen Ross," when the real estate sharpie starts getting an innocent guy drunk so he can sell him some worthless Florida land.)


The philatelic store owner has no stamp guides on his shelves, or even a computer where one could easily Google up a zillion pieces of information on this or any other rare stamp. So you're thinking this play must be taking place in an "American Buffalo" era without computers. Everyone stands around and ponders and speculates and debates the value of the stamps. This goes on for most of the first act. Bobby says he's going to run out and bring back a big-time investor pal for a look-see.

The play shifts to another set in which Alison and her older half-sister (Katie Finneran) begin arguing about who the album was left to, and thus who has the right to sell the stamps, and who knows how much they might really be worth. Both women present themselves to us as intelligent and capable, and neither seems to have a clue how to verify the authenticity of the stamps, let alone their potential value in a world marketplace.


Alison hauls the album back to the stamp shop and this time the creepy investor (F. Murray Abraham, who's carrying some kind of long-nose automatic weapon inside his suitcoat and replaying the kind of sleazy criminal he etched in "Scarface") turns up to make Alison an offer she can't refuse. How much? No one is saying, even though the stamps are now described by one character as "the crown jewel of philately" issued in the age of Victoria.


Along about now you're thinking this entire play must be set in the age of Victoria, not only before the Internet but long before even Scott's first published price guide. You would think Alison might be motivated into doing a little legwork on her own or even with sister Katie. But then somebody mentions that the stamps' value could be checked online, which startles and irritates Bobby no end. "The Internet?" he gasps, and begins a long nasty rap on how stupid and unreliable and confusing the Internet must be as a research tool. This immediate confirms we must be witnessing a con, which Alison doesn't seem to get at all. If "Mauritius," like "American Buffalo," had a number of things on its mind besides the market value of its rare commodity, this play might have been an interesting display of the excellent talents assembled on stage. But it doesn't. "Mauritius" has no forward motion. It's back and forth, over and over, on and on, about whether the suitcase of cash that F. Murray hauls in will be enough payment for Alison. All three men presumably are fully aware of the fortune in Allison's slim red stamp album, but she's not because she can't be bothered to Google or call a recognized dealer or consult a library for a stamp catalog, or anything. And so the three male antagonists and Alison, like characters in many Mamet plays, get increasingly angry with each other, and all the four-letter and twelve-letter words that Mamet plays are famous for, start spilling over the footlights and assaulting the audience. It won't surprise you to learn that "Mauritius" has a fight director prominantly listed in its credits, to choreograph some of the mayhem.


Who on earth did Theresa Rebeck write this play for, anyway? All the senior citizens over 60 who filled the sold-out Wednesday matinee I attended? Surely some of them own and use computers, even though they may not be regular readers of Wired or The Madison Avenue Journal. Most of the gray-haired ladies and gentlemen I chatted with during intermission seemed more upset by the foul language than by the fact that the most computer-savvy (by age) member of this this star-studded cast didn't seem to know how to dig into the potential value of a worldclass collectible.

That one cast member who's most straitjacketed by Rebeck's plodding script is Alison Pill, the actress who mesmerized Broadway audiences last season with Jeff Daniels in "Blackbird"--in some ways the most powerful and wrenching performance by a woman I've ever watched in half a century of theater-going. In "Mauritius," the lovely, agile, quick-witted Miss Pill keeps taking little pulls on a bottle of Bud as she keeps getting pulled back again and again into endlessly redundant exposition with her four co-stars over the cash value of the stamps. In real life Pill is 21, and even though we're told her character is somewhat isolated, she's nothing like the drunken dupe in "Glengarry Glen Ross." There isn't another actress on the Broadway stage who projects the kind of assured, attuned, whip-smart instincts of Miss Pill. Her character projects a certain youthful vulnerability, but I never doubted for a minute she surely IMs, blogs and has at least five friends on Facebook. But in "Mauritius" she's trapped in an interactive world that's not only inactive but just plain inert.

Orchestra tickets for "Mauritius" were priced at ninety-one dollars and change. Is that the true value of this play? For my money this is a script that should have been read by the producers and stamped "return to sender."


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