Seen on Broadway: Broadway hasn’t seen a good thriller in ages…and Mauritius, a Manhattan Theatre Club production at the Biltmore, isn’t it, either. But this half-hearted, sort-of pulse pounder from playwright and Law & Order writer Theresa Rebeck has a few positives, notably a fetching twin-turntable set by John Lee Beatty whose twists are more interesting than those of the plot. Stamp collecting was the engine that drove the film classic Charade and he pastime gets another, more comprehensive workout here, as down-but-defiant Jackie (Alison Pill) brings an old album of her mother’s to the swinish Philip (Dylan Baker) for appraisal. Philip turns her out of his dusty office without so much as looking at it (otherwise, there were would be no play), which makes her fair game for Dennis (Bobby Cannavale, excellent in the show’s one outstanding performance), who just sort of hangs out in Philip’s digs, as if easy marks for con games happen to wander into stamp collecting offices every day. Dennis quickly realizes that the book contains two priceless “Post Office” stamps from the island nation of the show’s title, which his hard-hearted employer Sterling (F. Murray Abraham) will do anything to obtain. This has Dennis pitching woo, first at Jackie’s older half-sister Mary (Katie Finneran), who stakes her own emotional claim on the album, then at Jackie herself, who is determined to sell it at a high price, no matter that Sterling is as much a gangster as a philatelist.
No one hurls four-letter obscenities at an audience quite like Abraham, in that part of the show that owes a big debt to David Mamet. When the album is imperiled, we’re in territory that Martin McDonagh (The Beauty Queen of Leenane) has made his own. That doesn’t leave a lot of free airspace for the playwright, whose contribution is unremarkable metaphors; characters repeatedly insist that the value of the stamps is their imperfection, a quality we are clubbed into associating with the world-wounded Jackie and Dennis. As everyone lets down their guard in Act II even Sterling, who has a lengthy monologue about rights and respect, behaves like Dr. Phil with a suitcase full of cash and a shoulder holster. More than anything, what Rebeck comes to threaten us with is the prospect of a final group hug.
Knowing that this assignment was no Doubt, director Doug Hughes concentrates less on the text than on its realization. Except for Cannavale, a likable lug, the actors are more efficient than exciting; Pill, so wonderful in last season’s Blackbird, is annoyingly mannered in Act I till her co-star warms her up. Hughes gets more even work from three of his Doubt designers. Beatty’s sets, as finely detailed as ever, spin from the office to a restaurant to Mary’s barely furnished apartment and back again, fluidly. The restaurant and the apartment are painted in interesting green tones, which Paul Gallo’s otherwise mood-setting illumination brings out. He is new to the team, which reprises Catherine Zuber, with appropriately lived-in, workaday costumes except for Sterling’s outsized flash, and an underscore and audio design by David Van Tieghem that accent the ominous. (Hudson Scenic Studios provided the scenery and automation, PRG the lights, and Masque Sound the audio.) Without defining touches like his, Mauritius would drop seriously in value.
Seen Off Off Broadway: In the late 1950s and early 1960s Ann Bannon wrote a series of groundbreaking novels about lesbian life in Greenwich Village. Their covers were pure pulp but within were sympathetic, clear-eyed accounts of a forbidden lifestyle she found fascinating but felt unable to fully participate in herself. The Beebo Brinker Chronicles, by Kate Moira Ryan and Linda S. Chapman, distills them into a delightful, Tales of the City-type show, which in 90 quick-witted minutes captures their longing, hesitation, and fulfillment. Neither camp nor soap opera, the show (presented by Hourglass Group) takes the books at face value; plot developments that would be preposterous today may very well have been part and parcel of daring to live differently then.
Rachel Hauck’s set is defined by a simple raised platform, which acts mostly as a bed for the characters to fall in and out of. Beth (Autumn Dornfeld), a terminally frustrated housewife, leaves husband Charlie (Bill Dawes) behind to find her college love, Laura (the terrific, piercing, funny Marin Ireland), who is trying to find herself in New York City. A gay friend, Jack (David Greenspan), offers counsel; butch barkeep Beebo Brinker (Anna Foss Wilson) offers a little something extra, as she does to most of her female clientele. Carolyn Baeumler completes the cast, strongly directed by Leigh Silverman (Well), in various amusing roles.
Much of the show is set in Beebo’s bar, the Cellar, which Hauck fills in with glasses and ashtrays on one side of the stage. Jill BC DuBoff augments the minimal design with a room-filling soundscape of household and cocktail party noises. Nicole Pearce’s evocative lighting demarcates the environments, transitioning to silhouettes on the back wall and a hot red for steamier scenes. It’s Theresa Squire’s costumes, though, that really turn back the clock, and suggest a distaff version of the period-set TV hit Mad Men, from rough and ready for Beebo to lacier, frillier concoctions for the love scenes. The Beebo Brinker Chronicles, which has the blessing of the 75-year-old Bannon, is sold out at the Fourth Street Theatre bit an Off Broadway transfer is imminent once the show closes on Oct. 20. –Robert Cashill