October 6, 2007
"Mauritius" and Women on Broadway
Let me get this part out of the way first: Mauritius didn't work for me.
The chance to see its cast—F. Murray Abraham, Bobby Cannavale, Dylan Baker, Katie Finneran and ingénue-of-the-moment Alison Pill—would have been enough to get me into the Biltmore Theatre. But this time, it was the play itself that was the main lure. For it is the eagerly awaited Broadway debut of playwright Theresa Rebeck, a writer and producer of TV shows like "NYPD Blue" and "Law and Order: Criminal Intent," who over the past decade has laid siege to the stage with a barrage of works that includes Bad Dates, The Scene, The Water's Edge and the Pulitzer-Prize finalist Omnium Gatherum (which she co-wrote with Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros).
Somehow, I didn't see any of them. But I heard enough about them to make me sorry that I hadn't and determined not to miss this one. Mauritius tells a Mamet-like tale about the shady dealings and double-dealings surrounding a rare stamp collection haggled over by two half-sisters and lusted after by a trio of unscrupulous dealers and collectors. The title comes from the island in the Indian Ocean that is the provenance of a pair of exceedingly rare and lucrative stamps. The premise isn't bad and I actually enjoyed learning all the philatelic lore that Rebeck sprinkled throughout the text. But what she didn't do was fully develop the characters, create a plausible plot or make a point that would stick with you longer than it takes to walk to the corner after the show lets out.
This doesn't mean there aren't entertaining moments. The dialogue is often witty; the talented cast brings energy to the piece, particularly the ingratiating Cannavale; and John Lee Beatty's transforming set is almost a show by itself. And it also doesn't mean that I won't be just as eager to see what Rebeck does next. If someone who has done so well in the big-money world of Hollywood is dedicated enough to keep writing for the stage, then it's almost my duty to support her. Besides, as the New York Times has noted repeatedly, Mauritius is the only play by a woman on Broadway this season. And that's a shame. It would be a bigger one if this stumble kept Rebeck or her sister playwrights from getting a larger toehold on the Great White Way. For as quiet as it's kept, Broadway—particularly behind the scenes—remains largely a boy's club.
Over the years, it's been rare for more than one or two women at a time to be invited into the playhouse. Susan Glaspell was the go-to-gal in the 1920s and '30s. Lillian Hellman settled in during the '40s and '50s. Wendy Wasserstein held the spot from the late '80s until her premature death last year. There were always other women writing and a few—Clare Boothe Luce, Mary Chase, Jean Kerr, Lorraine Hansberry, Beth Henley, Marsha Norman—were produced on Broadway. But most have had to do their thing in the more open-air playgrounds of off-Broadway and regional theater. It's telling that Caryl Churchill's 1982 classic Top Girls will only make its Broadway debut next spring. I know it's been hard for any playwright to get a Broadway production in recent years but you'd think that someone would have given Paula Vogel, Lynn Nottage and Rebecca Gilman a shot by now.
After the show, my husband K and I walked over to Joe Allen, one of our favorite theater hangouts. We had our usual—the chicken sandwich for him, the meatloaf on sourdough for me—and, as always, talked about the posters of famous Broadway flops that decorate its wall. Mauritius won’t end up there. But it wouldn't bother me to see a few more works by women on that wall. After all, sometimes even the best players strike out but at least they got into the game.