Crime drama 'Mauritius' at Act 2 is captivating

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Jake Blouch stars as Dennis and Stephen Novelli is Sterling in "Mauritius" at Act II Playhouse in Ambler.

At first glance, Theresa Rebeck's Mauritius proceeds from a preposterous premise: that a thuggish, mid-20s con man and an aging mobster type would try to hoodwink and bully a young girl, entirely driven by their love of stamp collecting.

But Act 2's production glued me to the front of my seat for two hours, captivating with a crime drama that bests any episode of Law & Order or NYPD Blue that Rebeck has penned for television.

When the mother of half-sisters Jackie (Campbell O'Hare) and Mary (Juliana Zinkel, perfect in her self-righteous snobbery) dies, she leaves behind an album of rare stamps, collected over a lifetime by Mary's paternal grandfather, who bears no blood relation to Jackie. Jackie lives in a rundown home (smartly designed by Colin McIlvaine) and claims the stamps as her inheritance for caring for the dying mother.

Jackie takes the collection to Philip (Brian McCann), a local stamp expert, who dismisses her claims, so she turns to Dennis (Jake Blouch), the errand boy for shady businessman and amateur philatelist Sterling (Stephen Novelli). When everyone discovers the stamps' potential worth, each forms shifting and hesitant alliances in an attempt to double-cross the others (the title refers to the Mauritius Post Office stamps - a pair sold in 1993 for $4 million).

Preposterous, like I mentioned, but David Bradley's snappy direction and this excellent cast elevate Rebeck's story above the typical family or crime genres. Blouch, with his polished looks and smooth voice, plays Dennis like the Ryan Seacrest of thieves, an easy-to-trust con who can seduce both Jackie and Mary. Novelli initially portrays Sterling in comic-book-villain style, all jerky arm movements and staccato speech, but turns viciously threatening in the second act. McCann, quickly becoming one of the city's best character actors, grounds Philip's backstory to believably cement his long game and hidden motives.

The young UArts grad O'Hare triumphs in her role, delivering a performance as rare and exquisite as the stamp she pilfers. At once vulnerable and tough, off-putting and endearing in her millennial mannerisms and pity-me attitude, she sparkles in this part. Act 2's production marks the third time I've seen Mauritius; in past stagings I've disliked Jackie's character, mainly for the same reasons that Mary despises her. Here, I rooted for her to win big.

Under Bradley's direction, Act 2's production transcends the intrigue and crime-thriller plot.


THEATER REVIEW

Mauritius

Presented through Nov. 20 at Act 2 Playhouse, 56 E. Butler Ave., Ambler.

Tickets: $29 to $38. Information: 215-654-0200 or act2.org