Mauritius is a small Indian Ocean island nation; its claim to fame is a pair of rare old postage stamps, "the crown jewels of philately." If this doesn't sound like the makings of a smashing good thriller, prepare to be surprised.
Theresa Rebeck's 2007 drama Mauritius is given a smart, tight production at Act II Playhouse, directed by David Bradley. It begins with young Jackie (intense, frenetic Campbell O'Hare) visiting a sleepy shop with an old book of stamps bequeathed by her late mother. Surly expert Philip (Brian McCann) growls at her dismissively, "Does this look like Antiques Roadshow to you?" Gregarious customer Dennis (Jake Blouch) intervenes, discovering that Katie's collection contains some precious stamps but that she has no idea of their worth — “This girl is a lamb,” he assumes — and Mauritius is off and running.
Desires run deep
At home, Jackie and older half-sister Mary (Julianna Zinkel) pack mom’s belongings. Mary believes she deserves the stamps because they belonged to her father’s father; Katie maintains possession because their mother left them to her, and Mary never visited when she was dying. Mom, of course, left no will. The sisters literally play keep-away with the collection.
Dennis will deal with whichever sister can sell the stamps, and hopes that neither discovers how much they’re worth. He can’t buy them himself, but hopes for a generous cut from volatile businessman Sterling (Stephen Novelli) for arranging his purchase.
Soon, everyone is scamming everybody else. Stakes are high. “Two small slips of paper,” Jackie realizes, “and I’m born.” Mary is torn between keeping the stamps as family heirlooms (they have “intrinsic spiritual value”), and keeping them to deny Jackie’s dreams. Dennis wants cash, but also credibility with Sterling. Philip seeks revenge on Sterling for a past injury. Sterling’s desire for the stamps is palpable; when he finally sees them, his reaction is frighteningly orgasmic.
An underappreciated playwright
Theresa Rebeck should be more famous. Her TV work is widely recognized — writing and producing for Law & Order: Criminal Intent and NYPD Blue, creating Smash — but she's a prolific and underappreciated playwright and novelist. Mauritius plays like early David Mamet, its desperate amoral characters, shocking twists, and vivid profanity recalling American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross.
Rebeck’s tightly constructed play asks big questions about the personal aspects of business transactions. As Dennis says, “Commerce is always a complicated and nuanced relationship.” Rules might protect all sides or impede trade, a relevant issue in this election season. Business is not impersonal; greed ignites passions. Fight choreographer Samantha Reading’s talents are required by all five characters. They’re brutalizing each other about stamps, yes, but also about money and the freedom it promises.
Bradley’s production employs Colin McIlvane’s clever set, which transforms easily from the stamp shop to the mother’s home and her boxed-up possessions. Lilly Fossner’s lighting accentuates the play’s thrills, and Katherine Fritz’s costumes define the characters with insight and subtle wit. Christopher Colucci’s music accentuates the play’s larger, darker themes.
Along with superb performances from all five actors, this Mauritius skillfully showcases Rebeck’s talents, whether one sees the play as a fast-paced thriller, like her screen work, or a nuanced study of desperate characters, like her plays.