Mauritius by Theresa Rebeck. Directed by Ari Edelson.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"For a price."
All five characters in Theresa Rebeck’s play "Mauritius," which is the final offering of the season at the Dorset Theatre Festival in Dorset, Vermont understand the concepts of selling and buying for a price. It’s an idea that, turned on its tail, can be read as personal greed. It is that sense of the personal that changes natural greed, want, desire into something still more stark, more unnatural. In this play which pays homage - and who needs that old sentiment - to David Mamet and his play "American Buffalo" two sisters vie for the top spot and for the money to be had in the sale of rare stamps in the family’s collection.
Mary and Jackie share a mother. With mom’s marriage to an abusive second husband Mary left home at 16, never to return. Jackie’s big half-sister abandoned her infant relative to the hands of a man whose errors apparently never ceased, errors that have led Jackie into a hard shell existence. Now, with the death of mom, the two sisters reunite to fight over the possessions of the family that never really existed. And among them is a stamp collection that belonged to Mary’s grandfather, a collection she wants but that Jackie has claimed. In it are two stamps that could be worth $6,000,000. Personal greed.
This is like Mamet for girls. Language follows emotion in this play and the "f’ word plays against all odds in the second act and the end of the first act as well. Pretty much every character except Mary invokes it like Mamet’s men always do.
The sisters are joined in their ugly ways by three men, Philip, a dealer in antiquities and rare stamps, Sterling, a wealthy thug and Dennis, a conniving soldier of fortune from the slums of some large city. All three men want to acquire the one cent and two cent postal stamps from Mauritius, each for their own greedy purposes. It’s like the three men in the Mamet play sitting around the pawnshop trying to figure out how to acquire the American Buffalo nickel that could alter their impecunious circumstances. Add two women to the Mamet and you’d have this show in a nutshell...with the alteration from loose change to gummed stamps.
On an exquisitely designed set by Kevin Judge, five excellent actors bring Theresa Rebeck’s play to life. Jackie is played by the animated and determined Mandy Siegfried and her sister Mary is brought to vivid life by Mary Bacon. Both women are marvelous in their roles, although Bacon has a harder time of it as her lines aren’t written as believably as are Jackie’s. Rebeck shows her weakness for the realistically strong here and Siegfried brilliantly handles both lies and theories in her lines making her character into the strongest and oddly purest on the stage in Dorset. Bacon holds her own in Act One but cannot hold a candle to the powerful winds of Siegfried’s performance in the second half. Bacon’s character not only seems colder than ever in the final scene of the play but also less imposing after Sterling’s final exit.
Sterling has been cast to character and so has Philip which I think may have been a mistake. Larger than life, fatter and more misshapen, Sterling is played with great skill by Guy Boyd. The darker side of his character emerges flawlessly but as his appearance clues us in to his character’s deepest and darkest side there are few surprises in the play from Sterling.
Similarly the smarmy weasel aspects of Philip pop to the fore not only in his reluctant and greed-inflected lines at the top of the play but in his physical being expressed by Keith Reddin. Reddin’s personality may be something other than what we find on stage, but his looks seem so perfect for his character’s intentions that once again there are few surprises in the story from Philip’s point of view.
The best acting comes in the wild physicality and quicksilver, many-tongued changes of Dennis, the maneuverer of people, played to absolute perfection by Tom Pelphrey. His performance is so quixotic and so deliciously filled with attitude surprises that he is a joy to watch. Even the ending of the play, in his hands, brings surprises and delights. He is the making of the show, a not-to-be missed performance of the season.
Not knowing who was responsible for the casting it is hard to criticize the director for these choices. Still the obvious isn’t always the way to go. Edelson has done some nice work in the physical staging of the play, especially using the exquisite set design to develop three locations in the first act without a difficult change each time. Certainly his actors have their roles down pat and that has something to do with the director’s work, but the play misses on many levels and that brings us back to the author and the casting. Visually obvious isn’t always the best way to go, not when the writer has done her job so well bringing them to life.
Emily Pepper’s costumes are fitting for the characters. Michael Giannitti’s lighting keeps the show mostly in night-light which is what is called for. David Anzuelo’s fight choreography is Mamet light once again, without true danger in it, and without convincing gestures.
This is one of those occasions when a perfect play with pristine interpretations would have been the happiest season-ender possible. Instead there is an imperfect "parody" of a play that has been put into the hands of all the "right people" who only manage to be half convincing. This is not a play you will see all that often and even a good parody needs its audience, so go see it for the excitement of the Pelphrey performance, the stolid work of Siegfried and the fun of watching a play that moves along at another playwright’s pace. Rebeck has done better work and even so she has given Dorset a shot at a play that could be better itself under other directorial eyes.
Mauritius plays at the Dorset Theatre Festival, 104 Cheney Road, Dorset, Vermont through August 27. For information and tickets call the box office at 802-867-2223.