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  • Collectibles aren't limited to coins, baseball cards, and salt-and-pepper shakers. They can also be plays: more fun for the seeing and the re-seeing than for the thinking they evoke. One fine example is Theresa Rebeck's Mauritius, which is being given a fine if low-key production by the Women's Theater Company at the Parsippany Playhouse.

    Rebeck's play, which premiered on Broadway last year, is a good-old-fashioned suspense yarn desiring nothing more than to elicit momentary chills, bulging eyes, and gasps at crucial points in the plot. Unlike most of today's entries in this genre, though, it doesn't pretend to be about anything other than the tension it can create, parcel out, and occasionally defuse in long-winded speeches.

    Mauritius, like many of Rebeck's works, is talky without saying much. But here, that generally works in the favor of the characters, all of whom have excellent reasons for obfuscating from both their closest friends and their bitterest enemies: two 1847 stamps from the titular island (located off the coast of Africa, east of Madagascar) which, due to a printing error, represent the "crown jewel" of stamp collecting--and perhaps millions of dollars on the open market.

    Jackie (Julie Sihilling) is the naïve young woman who comes to the Hidden Treasures hobby shop seeking answers about the stamps from stuffy expert Philip (Nino Spallacci), but bonds instead with his friendlier, less-knowledgeable colleague Dennis (Lenny Bart). He knows only enough about the stamps to be dangerous--mostly by involving international arms dealer and acquisition artist Sterling (Duncan Rogers), who only gets in the game if he's guaranteed to win.

    But the rules change when Jackie's estranged half-sister Mary (Robin Marie Thomas) insists the stamps are hers: she inherited them from the grandfather she doesn't share with Jackie. A grabbing game ensues, for the women's sympathies as well as for the stamps, which Jackie wants to sell to end her debilitating financial problems and which Mary wants to preserve as a testament to her cherished grandfather.

    These relationships don't much engage--Rebeck drops a few teasing hints of aromatic histories (Jackie's violent upbringing, Philip's failed marriage), but is more interested in doling out the narrative goods. When she does, particularly in the terrifically twisty 50-minute puzzle that comprises the second act, she turns out a surprisingly sparkling philatelic thriller. Director Lauren Mills's firecracker pacing, which is in full force from the first scene on, never spares you a second to second-guess what you're seeing hearing. It also never lets the characters' rampant--and sometimes wearing--duplicity overwhelm the comedy; in many ways, her work is tauter and more buoyant than could be seen on Broadway.

    If the acting doesn't consistently live up to that standard, it's largely accomplished. Sihilling's staccato confusion anchors the play rhythmically, but tires after a while--you want Jackie to eventually grow to become an equal part of the con-game orchestra that's trying to drown her out. Spallacci draws Philip as a jittery neurotic, which allows for some fierce second-act explosions but doesn't always solidify the play's academic center; Bart, boyish and bouncy, runs into some trouble making his always-condescending character sound real. But Thomas's stiff, calculated concern and Rogers's eerily quiet menace make them exciting foils for Jackie--unpredictable even if you know the play.

    The surprising thing about Mauritius, though, is that it loses little of its potency even if you know where it's going--whether because you're a step ahead of it, or because you've seen it before. Like those stamps, it fascinates because of its flaws and its willingness to be a pocket of chaos in an otherwise well-ordered world. Balancing those conditions is tough, but this production makes it seem as effortless as a trip to the post office.

    Mauritius is running through December 7 at the Women's Theater Company, 1130 Knoll Rd., Parsippany, NJ. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8:00 PM, Sunday at 2:00 PM. Tickets are $18. Call (973) 316-3033 or visit womenstheater.org

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