Stamp of Disapproval

LTW gives 'Mauritius' a good go, but the playwright's lightweight script falls flat

Mauritius is a tiny little island off the coast of Africa which was colonized by the British during their England-take-all phase. It's only real importance, except for having hosted the dodo bird's extinction, has been to the people living there.

Mauritius—the play by Theresa Rebeck, now onstage at Live Theatre Workshop—is a slim little piece, theatrically important only to the people who occupy the stage. Although LTW has assembled an impressive ensemble, full of energy and committed to the story they are telling, it's not enough to sell this weightless, TV-episode-like yarn.

Speaking of yarn: Just as knitting is a noble pastime for those who love to experience those needles acrobatically clicking in the service of crafting an item, yarn, by its very nature, doesn't lend itself to being placed at the center of a tale of mystery. Similarly, the collection of stamps, called philately, is often dismissed—even scoffed at—by those dispassionately interested in the things. But stamps are the focal point of Mauritius. Specifically, these are the un-cancelled Mauritian "post office" one- and two-penny stamps, so called because they should have been printed with the words "post paid" rather than "post office."

Yes, stamps can be worth impressively tidy sums, and it's because of this that Rebeck can form a bit of brouhaha about them. But there's something rather trivial at the center of her story, which makes the story itself inherently lackluster—no matter the odd characters, the questions of value and worth, and the ever-changing alliances.

One could possibly argue—if one wanted to spend much time thinking about the script—that this is intentional, an inside joke which makes the shenanigans onstage underscore the absurdity of selling our souls for mere things. But this possible purpose is not clear, so I wouldn't argue that at all.

The piece also seems formulaic. (In fact, you don't have to listen too closely to hear echoes of David Mamet.) There's the seemingly innocent Jackie (Carley Elizabeth Preston), who has stumbled onto what she suspects is a valuable asset—her grandfather's stamp collection, held by her recently deceased mother—and she attempts to ascertain its worth without getting taken by knowing but self-interested experts. Then there's the insider/outsider relative, Jackie's half-sister, Mary (Rhonda Hallquist), who appears after what is hinted to be the dismal process of the mother's death, and who claims that the collection is hers—and that she holds it dear because of its sentimental value. This creates conflict, as does the weird duo of philatelic experts, Philip (Michael Woodson) and Dennis (Steve Wood), who, although seeming to occupy the same worn collectibles shop, are related in unexplained ways. And then there's the guy with the bucks big enough to purchase those two little scraps of paper, Sterling (Jonathan Northover), a mysteriously sociopathic pinball of a man.

Predictably, alliances shift; characters reveal they are not exactly who they seem to be; and there is a surprising moment or two. The trouble is, it all seems so arbitrary and implausible that we don't really care.

This failure is largely Rebeck's fault. The cast is committed and fills in gaps left by Rebeck admirably, and they generally give solid performances. Director Sabian Trout gives them enough fleshed-out context and shoos them along adequately to make the story glide.

But some of her oversight is problematic; casting Wood is an example. Dennis is an opportunist, a wheeler and dealer whose loyalties can shift 180 degrees in a second—but Wood looks like an Eagle Scout. Not that he acts like one. Wood is a fine actor, and quite importantly, he may have been the best choice available. He does give Dennis a good go, but his visual presence undercuts the character. Dennis needs to be clean enough to inspire confidence, but dirty enough to make his relationship with Sterling believable. A different costume choice might have helped, but was neglected.

Northover gives us a dangerously high-strung slime-ball—but with a touch of class, which makes us laugh even as it makes us cringe. Hallquist walks perhaps the tightest rope, credible as a person whose desire is to be a helpful sister to put-upon Jackie, as well as a person capable of a very unattractive melt-down. Her portrait of an enigma is terrific.

Woodson's Philip is uninspired, and even a little over-wrought at times. But chiefly, it's Preston's story, and she gives the best performance I've seen from her. There's not quite the nuance that would make her characterization a slam-dunk, but Rebeck's deficiencies make such a feat more difficult than it should be.

And it's the playwright's deficiencies that make us walk away shaking our heads. Rebeck's scenes are taut, and her dialogue is crisp. But she throws out ideas and then fails to address them, especially when it comes to the psychological underpinnings of her characters. We go "ooh" or "ah" a couple of times when surprised by a turn, but then exit the theater with empty hands.

Mauritius doesn't make us squirm, nor does it provoke much thought about our fascination with collecting, nor does it make us cringe at the evil monster Greed. LTW's production is, for the most part, a really solid one; the play's the thing that trips us up.

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