For a springtime treat, Newark’s Resident Ensemble Players (REP) have mounted a snappy production of Theresa Rebeck’s multilayered thriller Mauritius.
Making good use of the intimate black-box Studio Theatre, director Stephen Pelinski—who is more often on the boards than behind the scenes—and his designers have created an amiable, admirable noir atmosphere. The audience can see one another as well as the actors, and Pelinski stages the work to draw viewers into this tale of stamps, skullduggery, family dynamics, and betrayal.
Deft and prolific
Rebeck is one of America’s most prolific dramatists and writers. This past season alone, she had three plays onstage in New York (one on Broadway). Two films that she wrote and directed were released, and she also published a novel, began a TV series, and started writing a high-profile Hollywood thriller. In addition, she has a PhD in Victorian melodrama, evidenced in a previous association with REP—her 2017 premiere of The Bells, which she also directed.
Melodrama is the heartbeat of many thrillers, and in Mauritius Rebeck makes deft use of the genre’s twists and turns. She gave Pelinski permission to switch the genders of two characters from the 2007 play. She also provided rewrites for this production, all of which work quite smoothly.
A valuable album
Mauritius, an island nation in the Indian Ocean, lies about 600 miles off the coast of Madagascar. In the 19th century, this former British colony was one of the first countries to issue a postage stamp, making it of towering importance in the world of philately. Because of an engraving error, one of its stamps (the “Post Office”) is unbelievably rare—fertile territory for a philatelic thriller.
Mauritius opens in the grubby shop of Phillip (Lee E. Ernst), where Jackie (Kathleen Pirkl Tague) timidly enters with the stamp album of her recently deceased mother. Dismissive of amateurs, Phillip refuses to look at the collection. So Dennis (Mic Matarrese), a self-professed expert and shop hanger-about with murky motives, offers to take a look. He sees two “Post Office” stamps and cagily begins to ingratiate himself with the grieving and inexperienced Jackie.
Dennis then sets up a clandestine meeting with Sterling (Elizabeth Heflin), an unscrupulous under-the-radar collector, and they plot to acquire the stamps. Meanwhile, Jackie returns home to learn that her estranged half-brother Gary (Michael Gotch), who has little interest in clearing up either their mother’s detritus or her outstanding bills, is adamant that the stamp album belongs solely to him. He refuses to sell, adding a familial dimension to the duplicities and double-crosses already under way.
A good story told and retold
All five actors have etched indelible, specific, and juicy characterizations, and throughout the evening they transform in unexpected ways. The elegant Heflin, devious and mercurial, is the villain of the piece. Or is she? Ernst—who also directed the evening’s excellent fisticuffs—exudes a dubious, world-weary, seen-it-all malaise. Gotch vacillates between solicitous and something just a little more manipulative. Matarrese cleverly shifts his sympathies with the prevailing winds. And Pirkl Tague is at first unrecognizable (and frequently heartbreaking) as the beaten-down caretaker seeing the possibility of a new beginning.
Scenic designer Bill Clarke shoehorned a realistic shop into the small space, imbuing it (and Jackie’s apartment) with a pleasing grubby claustrophobia enhanced by old-fashioned—and very swift—scene changes. Barry G. Funderburg composed the prickly, noir-ish music, along with sound design that is especially effective in creating chilly echoes in a late-night parking-garage meeting. Barb Hughes’s savvy costume choices and lights by Jaymi Lee Smith all work to round out Pelinski’s taut direction.
This 2007 play is frequently cited as Rebeck’s homage to David Mamet’s American Buffalo (a 1975 look into shady dealings among coin collectors), and the similarities are undeniable. But there’s nothing wrong with a good story told and retold, replete with sleek writing, plot twists, hidden motives, and characters that keep you glued to the stage.
What, When, Where
Mauritius. By Theresa Rebeck, directed by Stephen Pelinski. Through May 12, 2019, at the University of Delaware’s Roselle Center for the Arts Studio Theatre, 110 Orchard Road, Newark, DE. (302) 831-2204 or rep.udel.edu.
The Studio Theatre in the Roselle Center is a wheelchair-accessible venue. To learn more or request accommodations, call the box office or email [email protected] at least five days in advance of the performance.