Top Pick! — Bay Theatre’s production of Mauritius is a rocket trip to a world both violent and profoundly cynical, where lives and relationships are held cheaply. In the world of Mauritius, promises are written on water, truth and lies are of equal value, and business is done with a slap to the face or a punch to the gut.
Oh – and it’s about stamp collecting.
Those of you who find it hard to believe in that philately can be the setting for a tension-filled crime drama may have forgotten American Buffalo, David Mamet’s excruciating journey into the world of coin collecting. Mauritius bears the same relationship to Buffalo that the real Mauritius bears to the real Buffalo…they are both places you can go, but their purposes are different.
The purpose of Mauritius is to show how greed can transform and fill up the lives of people who otherwise have nowhere to go and nothing to do. Jackie (Rana Kay) has, upon the death of her mother, come into possession of a stamp collection of near-incalculable value. It contains, among other treasures, one- and two-cent “post office” stamps from Mauritius, circa 1847 – among the rarest stamps in the world – in mint condition. Sale of the collection promises relief from Jackie’s dreary, debt-filled life, but Jackie’s half-sister Mary (Karen Novack), whose grandfather actually collected the stamps, wants to keep the collection for what she says are sentimental and aesthetic reasons. Dennis (Danny Gavigan), a predatory con artist, manages to see the stamp book when Jackie takes it to Phillip (Peter Wray) for appraisal, and thereafter schemes to get it sold to the fierce, thuggish Sterling (Nigel Reed), an avid collector in love with the art and beauty of the stamps.
You may raise your eyebrows when I describe Sterling as a fierce, thuggish stamp collector but you won’t after you see the play. Reed, a veteran actor and Helen Hayes laureate with extensive TV credits, makes Sterling as scary as a hobgoblin and, at the same time, shows him to be the only character actually moved by art. His negotiating scene with Jackie in the second Act will make you sweat.
Sterling is not the only character who embraces contradictory impulses. In fact, they all do, which is what makes this such a dynamic play. No character is the person he seems to be, and every time a character reveals a new aspect of himself, the plot goes flying off in a new direction, bringing new dangers into being. Only great actors can bring such a thing off convincingly, and director Steven Carpenter has a cast full of them. Chief among them is Gavigan as the slick and ingratiating Dennis and the fabulous Kay as a seemingly disorganized and vulnerable young lady full of steely resolve. Carpenter, who put Washington Stage Guild’s excellent Opus and Rep Stage’s wildly funny Hysteria together, has quietly established himself as one of Washington’s best directors and a good match for a well-made play.
Rebeck, an astoundingly prolific playwright who has also written for television (notably, Law & Order) and has a novel out, has here put together a flawless piece of work, without a single wasted word or a single false plot step. Aspiring playwrights should watch it more than once to see the immense skill with which she teases out exposition, builds suspense, and manages startling character reveals credibly. Rebeck has taught at Brandeis and Columbia, putting the lie to the old cliché that “those who can’t, teach.”
Bay Theatre gives us an absolutely marvelous production of this fine work. On the afternoon I saw the show, it was marred by an annoying whirring sound coming out of the technical area. Bay Theatre’s efforts to become a first-rank company, which are proceeding effectively on many fronts, will be stymied until problems like this are eliminated.
Mauritius – Top Pick!
By Theresa Rebeck
Directed by Steven Carpenter
Produced by Bay Theatre Company
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Mauritius runs through March 20, 2010.
For details, directions and tickets, click here.