Mauritius, by Theresa Rebeck. Directed by Eric Peterson. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Meredith Meurs as Jackie and Doria Bramante as Mary; photo: Erika Floriani
"A one-penny and a two-penny post office."
Gabriel Vaughan and Peter Langstaff; photo: Erika Floriani
Distinguishing quality from commonplace is the job of the collector. In Theresa Rebeck's play "Mauritius" five people set out to do just that in order to determine the value of two stamps in an old collection. If that sounds dull, then I am not doing justice to this play's premise. Let me start over. In this play five shady people attempt to outwit one another in a collector's game of worth and deception. There we go.
The collection belongs to the estate of a recently deceased woman, mother of two daughters by different fathers. The girls have had little to do with one another and approach their work of eliminating the negative from their lives from different points of view until Jackie discovers Mary's grandfather's stamp collection (different fathers, don't forget). Dead Mom has left it all to Jackie but Mary stakes her claim. They fight, then Jackie takes the collection to a dealer and everything goes awry.
Six years ago I referred to this play as "Mamet for girls," because the women dominate the play which bears a remarkable similarity to David Mamet's "American Buffalo." Like the man's play the language ultimately disintegrates into four letter words. Like that same play the plot moves into the awkward relationships among crooks. But the women do make the difference and it is wonderful how author Theresa Rebeck never forgives her girls for being as unreasonable and cruel as the men they deal with in this play.
Meredith Meurs plays Jackie, the younger woman, who sees a future in the collection of stamps she has inherited.Through an abusive childhood she has developed a thick skin and feels capable of handling herself in a shady trade. Meurs displays a natural vulnerability which works well in this role as the character has almost none of her own, yet playing through it Meurs makes her an actual heroine, tenderness her long streak with uncharacteristic strengh its underpinning. The performance is both engaging and enduring, its impression a long-lasting one. She breathes a sensual life into the role.
Doria Bramante in the role of Mary manages to hold her own in the fight scenes. Her role as a picture of reasonable strength is fascinating in her hands. The final scene between the two women shows the contrasts in their lives extremely well. Laying in wait while lying is Mary's strong suit and Bramante gives her an almost regal, declarative pose from which to work.
Richard Howe is the stamp dealer/expert whose diffidence is overwhelming. Unassertive until the end, removed and apart from the action his character, Phillip, is at the center of everything. He plays this mean-spirited character for all it is worth and the result is almost chilling.
Peter Langstaff is Sterling, the bad buy. Or is he bad? Sterling wants to buy the contraband materials that collectors seek out. He is either an avid collector, wealthy and supportive, or an evil spirit, malignant and corrupt who must have what he must have or else. He brings a sense of threat into the proceedings and he does it so very well, voice and posture leading the way. This is a wonderful role for Langstaff who has taken so many upright roles that he seemed to be turning into the British good guy and nothing else. With this role his acting career continues and his reward to us is a performance that chills the blood.
Go-between roles are never as rewarding as others, but with Dennis, Gabriel Vaughan has a wonderful opportunity to be all things to all people and still remain true to his character's basic flaws. He plays the back and forth of his role with excellent phrasing, wonderful physical changes and split-second timing. He has those unanticipated romantic moments that prove Dennis is not what we think he is, and yet, from time to time, we pause to wonder "is this for real?"
Eric Peterson has put this show on its feet brilliantly, keeping us always aware of what's happening and what is playing in the memory banks underneath. He has driven the Mamet-esque script into unforseen depths and kept interest alive even when we know, and we do know, what is coming.
A nice set and costumes designed by Ursula McCarty and Roy Hamlin with gloomy, interior lighting by David V. Groupé enhance the excellent projections designed by Cory Wheat. Note the canceled stamp on the stage floor with the opening date of the production.
"American Buffalo" is coming up soon in another Vermont theater and it will be interesting to really compare the two plays. I personally think that "Mauritius" has a slight edge, but if the triumph of one small time crook over another is not your thing, then find a musical somewhere. It the slight intrigue of minor crimes grabs your imagination then see this play.
Richard Howe, Peter Langstaff; photo:Erika Floriani
Meredith Meurs and Gabriel Vaughan; photo: Erika Floriani
Mauritius plays at Oldcastle Theatre Company, 331 Main Street, Bennington, Vermont through August 6. For information and tickets call the box office at 802-447-0564 or go on line at oldcastletheatre.org.