Tuesday, April 21, 2009
Who would have thought the world of stamp collecting could be so shady? Apparently there's an underbelly to philately, and it's given dramatic treatment in Mauritius, the new comic thriller at Cygnet Theater. Jessica John and Sandy Campbell play estranged sisters who fight over an inherited stamp collection that may be worth millions. Three greedy men show an interest in their collection, and each of them are familiar characters from seedy underworld narratives: the seemingly harmless, nerdy expert, the silver-tongued grifter, and the laconic, dangerous kingpin. None of them are to be trusted and the play unfolds with shifting alliances among all five characters.
Playwright Theresa Rebeck also writes for television, including Law & Order, and the play has a episodic feel to it. Her dialogue is terrific, and the play moves through the plot like a rock skimming water. It's all fast and slick and skillfully executed, but the depths below are left unexplored and only...skimmed (to fully exhaust the metaphor). I wasn't terribly disappointed by this, because the production is so well cast and directed (by Francis Gercke) and just plain fun. I also love the language and folklore of subcultures and Rebeck builds her story skillfully around these parts. There are stamps with names like Inverted Jenny and the titular Mauritius, one of the most coveted stamps in philately, named for the British colonial island in the Indian Ocean and home to the earliest stamps ever created. Also, when rare stamps have certain flaws, they become even more valuable, a nice philosophical layer.
I thought every actor in this cast was terrific, though I'll admit I was most entertained by John DeCarlo as the fast-talking Dennis. DeCarlo uses every bit of the stage, moving as fast as he talks. He's as charming a weasel as they come, hungry for a score and in love with the swindle as much as the money. Manny Fernandes is believably menacing in his conquest; his expensive suit can barely contain his violent impulses. And Sandy Campbell plays Mary, the uptight sister to Jessica John's punky, comic-book reading, Jackie. Campbell manages to make Mary infuriating and totally loopy.
There are certainly more profound nights spent at the theater, but there's a lot to be said for smart, well-done entertainment, which Mauritius amply provides. Mauritius (pronounced More-ISH-iss) runs through May 10th at Cygnet's Rolando stage.