“I’m so glad nobody was killed,” an audience member, walking past me, remarked to a companion.
Well, of course, murder was on the table. We’re talking about stamp collecting, aren’t we?
Mauritius is a love story – a story about love of stamps, and love of money, and other, mostly doomed, love drifting mysteriously through a half-told backstory. In 1st Stage’s presentation of Theresa Rebeck’s tight little jewel box of a play, it’s also all about the funny. Love and funny.
Jackie (Leigh Taylor-Patton) is a young woman in desperate financial straits who has recently lost her mother but found a stamp collection of colossal value. She takes it for appraisal to Phillip (Roger Payano), a stamp expert and arrogant ass (there are a lot of arrogant asses in this play), who refuses to even open the book for less than two thousand dollars. But Dennis (Edward Daniels), a man so radiantly sleazy that you will see him in an orange jump suit no matter how well he is decked out, is watching everything, and he has no qualms about valuing the stamps for her. See this stamp? he asks. It’s an inverted jenny, worth nearly three thousand dollars! (In actual fact, an inverted jenny was recently auctioned for a hundred large on the West Coast.)
Dennis, though, has even bigger fish to fry. He has spied some ultra-rare “Post Office” stamps from the Island of Mauritius, uncancelled and in mint condition. (Director and set designer Mark Krikstan suspends blowups of the stamps, featuring a startled-looking Queen Victoria, mid-air). They are worth millions – lots of millions. Dennis brings the possibility of a delicious Mauritius treat to Sterling (Bruce Alan Rauscher), a thuggish, profanity-spewing arms dealer for whom stamp collecting brings a spiritual joy which verges on the carnal. (“I feel like smoking,” he says after touching the promised stamp. “There’s something post-coital about a moment like this.”)
There’s just one problem – the stamps might not belong to Jackie. Her half-sister Mary (Amy Waldman), whose biological grandfather actually acquired the stamps in the first place, also lays claim to them. Mary left the family for boarding school when she was sixteen and never returned until her mother died. The details – how Jackie’s mother acquired the collection from the father of her first husband; what horrible thing happened between the mother and her second husband, Jackie’s father, to drive Mary away; how the family fell into financial misery – are deliberately left murky, so that we cannot judge the justice of Mary’s claim. We can know this: Mary uses her superior education, sophistication, and familiarity with the legal system to intimidate Jackie into believing that she cannot acquire – or more importantly, sell – the stamps by legal means.
Thus Mauritius is about an irresistible force – the implacable Sterling, pursuing the stamps like a shark pursuing chum – meeting an immovable object: the pious, braying Mary, who refuses to let one stamp leave her grandfather’s precious collection. The other three characters, in one way or another, stand at the collision point, and at some point flying body parts seem imminent.
Mauritius is a gas tank of dramatic tension, but 1st Stage plays it at only about three-quarters full. You will hate the self-righteous and despicable Mary, which is a tribute to Waldman’s work with the character. But Rauscher, a wonderful actor who has successfully played a King (Edward III, in Washington Shakespeare’s play by the same name) and a dog (in Keegan’s nifty Love, Peace and Robbery) here makes Sterling considerably less menacing than he could have. Sterling continues to represent danger – with his paint-peeling dialogue, it would be impossible for him not to – but Rauscher makes him more exasperated than explosive. Daniels, too, soft-pedals the implications of intimidation Rebeck wrote into Dennis’ character, which diminishes the impact of his crumbling façade of lies before Sterling’s bull-like demands and, to a surprising degree, makes the late-budding romance between his character and Jackie less plausible.
Dialing down the tension, though, has the agreeable effect of making the comic aspects of Rebeck’s play more palpable: it is easier to laugh when your heart is not in your throat. In particular, the way the characters use contemporary psychobabble to manipulate each other while maintaining the moral high ground becomes delightfully apparent. “I’m so glad we had this conversation,” Mary says after she just informs Jackie that she intends to screw her out of the stamps. “You’re so interested in victimhood?” Sterling rages, later on. “Go watch TV.” In the show I attended, the audience laughed, frequently and at length, as Rebeck’s sly knowingness insinuated itself through the dialogue.
As you doubtlessly know, 1st Stage is dedicated to giving new actors their first professional stage experience. The newcomer in this production is Patton, who makes her professional debut in the role of Jackie. She acquits herself admirably. Jackie is a difficult role: she appears first as a bubbleheaded know-nothing but builds into a character who can take on Sterling as a high-tension equal in a game of high-dollar bump, and when we see her at the end, we must believe that the person we saw at the beginning is the same person. Patton does the job, convincingly and unfussily, and her performance portends much good work ahead of her.
By Theresa Rebeck
Directed by Mark Krikstan
Produced by 1st Stage
Reviewed by Tim Treanor