Mauritius

Articles keep referring to Theresa Rebeck's Mauritius as a play about stamp collecting. Yet it's no more a philately play than The Clean House is a hygiene play or Radio Golf a real-estate play. Rebeck's pen has rarely been as sharp as she affixes her themes — avarice, power, revenge — to the tale of half sisters between whom little love is lost and a stamp album potentially worth millions.

How crafty that we learn just enough of Jackie (the bitter younger sister, played by Alison Pill) and Mary (the implacable, fetching older sister, played by Katie Finneran) to draw us in yet keep us distant. Neither is a child in whom a parent would take pride — even as Jackie lords it over Mary that it was she who nursed their dying mother while Mary remained separated from the family for years. Their competing claims to the album pivot on survivorship rights, Rashomon-like recollections of family promises, the rewards of personal sacrifice, and the spoils of war. Cynicism blows through the play, staged elegantly by Doug Hughes, like an ill wind.

When Jackie brings the album to Philip (Dylan Baker), a professional philatelist, he unwisely dismisses her. Dennis (Bobby Cannavale), a hanger-on in Philip's store and a sandpaper-smooth con man, knows his stamps enough to realize that two of them are among the most valuable on earth. Tracking Jackie at home, Dennis discovers Mary's competing claim and is willing to do anything — say, pouring on the charm as if from a spigot — to generate a sale. The buyer: Sterling (F. Murray Abraham), a wealthy munitions dealer and philatelic obsessive with a taste for inflicting pain, physical or otherwise, to get his way. Offers are made and modified, rescinded and restored. Everyone — even pokey Philip — wants in on the action.

There's something madcap about Mauritius in the same sense that the $350,000 suitcase in It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World is madcap, but something sobering too. Hughes' real achievement with this morality play is how the actors seem empowered to revel in this balance, leading to one of the best ensemble performances of the still-new season. Pill plays the pouting post-teen with disarming maturity. As shown in The Lieutenant of Inishmore last year and Blackbird last season, she knows how to grab humor while groping through a play's dark atmosphere. Finneran, who could light a city with her comic wattage, plays it straight and thus on the mark: Mary's indefensible selfishness leaves you gasping in shock in one moment, gasping for air in another. You constantly watch which sister holds the album; Hughes never lets them ignore its pull.

Mauritius, which marks Rebeck's first Broadway production, transcends philatelic bitch-fighting. Abraham's Sterling is a volcano of cunning and cussing; he plays an Act 2 scene in which the sale nearly occurs for every ounce of suspense and surprise — and Rebeck has multiple surprises up her sleeve. Carotid arteries bulging, Cannavale's Dennis is one part bumble and no part humble, a not-so-slick flimflammer who gently twists the play's tragic ending with a note of love and prestidigitation. And Baker — well, is there any character he can't play? That sad-sack voice, those slumping shoulders — you think Philip is Rebeck's weakest link, a contrivance to be licked like a stamp and tossed. Yet in some ways, he's what gets Mauritius to its destination right on time.

Presented by Manhattan Theatre Club

at the Biltmore Theatre, 261 W. 47th St., NYC.

Oct. 4-Nov. 25. Tue.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat., and Sun., 2 p.m.

(212) 239-6200 or (800) 432-7250 or www.telecharge.com.

Casting by David Caparelliotis.