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BWW Reviews: Stamps and Cash in the Spotlight - Fells Point MAURITIUS

Back when I was a stamp collector in my golden youth, one of the fun facts I learned early on was that the rarest stamp in the world was issued in the British colony of Mauritius.  When I heard that Fells Point Corner Theatre was putting on a play by the name of Mauritius, I couldn’t help but wonder whether the subject was the volcanic rock in the Indian Ocean or the rare stamp that had been issued there.  I was intrigued when I learned that it was indeed a play about philately and not a tropic isle.

My curiosity was piqued; with all respect to the hobby, how could it become the subject of a whole play?  In retrospect, it should have been obvious.  Stamps are the perfect McGuffins.  McGuffin was the term used and maybe coined by Alfred Hitchcock for the object that sets the plot in motion, typically because everyone wants it  Portable, easily possessed, easily stolen, and infinitely desirable.  The Maltese Falcon was a McGuffin.  The ark in Raiders of the Lost Ark was one.  Come to think of it, stamps themselves have already been featured as the McGuffins – in Charade (1963) and its remake The Truth About Charlie (2002). Here they come again, this time a pair of exceedingly rare and valuable Mauritius stamps, stamps that motivate and elicit bad behavior from each member of the five-character dramatis personae in Theresa Rebeck’s dark 2007 thriller-comedy.

The setup is that the stamps have become the inheritance of one of two sisters Jackie (played here by Jenn Mikulski) and Mary (Abby Scharbach) – though which of them is the true inheritor is a matter of dispute.  The stamps are also being sought by three members of the demimonde of professional stamp dealers and collectors: Philip, a dealer with a past (Rodney Bonds); Dennis, Philip’s hanger-on (Vic Cheswick, Jr.); and Sterling, apparently a gangster with a philatelic bent (Jeff Murray).  As to the relationships among and intentions of this trio we cannot be sure.  But all of them want the stamps.  Mayhem ensues.

It is always a question with plays of this sort whether the author harbors any objective deeper than giving the audience a fun bad time.  If the answer is no, there’s nothing wrong with that: the already-mentioned Charade worked fine as a superficial funhouse ride.  Ira Levin’s icier Deathtrap (1978), closer in tone to this astringent affair, also works fine without harboring aspirations to greater artistic meaning.  And the hallmark of that superficiality is a certain well-plotted quality.  Works that seek to do more, to address the human condition, can afford to, though they need not be, sloppier.  So, was this a superficial and well-plotted funhouse ride, or something more?

I came away not being able to answer that question with confidence.  The superficiality, dishonesty, selfishness, and propensity for violence demonstrated by the characters could be viewed as a critique of a society that does not embrace integrity and humane values.  Each of the characters is resolutely modern, using the Internet as a reference point, spouting profanity in a thoroughly up-to-date fashion, talking the women’s-talk-show talk if not walking the walk about authenticity in personal relationships.  Yet they all end up behaving as basely as the lost souls in Jacobean tragedy, as graspingly as the ensembles in Jonson or Molière.  Those plays were critiques, to be sure.  So on that model, this too could be a critique.

But I’m not convinced.  There’s a kind of tough talk dialogue that has become a sort of trope in modern drama – think Pinter or Mamet or LaBute or Tarantino – call it Reservoir Dogs dialogue, in which characters are simultaneously highly articulate and unsharing.  Their interior lives are closed to each other and to us.  There’s a lot of that here.  Pinter makes this kind of talk serve as the vehicle to high art: the indeterminacy of the characters’ lives and emotions is the subject.  That hardly seems to be the case here; here it just seems more like vital withheld information.  For instance, what exactly was it that happened in the sisters’ family of origin that drove the older one out of the house at age 16?  What exactly did Sterling do to Philip eight years ago?  If, as the script hints, it had something to do with a woman, what were the rights and wrongs of it, and where is she now?  We aren’t told; the playwright is as unforthcoming as is Jackie when asked to name a price for the stamps, which she never does.  But if this is a critique of a glib but morally bankrupt society, it sure helps if the characters seem real, and if they experience moral dilemmas of some sort.  The stinginess with basic back stories tends to thwart that.

Contrast that with the loving attention to the McGuffins.  Playwright Rebeck tells us all about the stamps, educates us, in fact, as the play goes on.  And the pinnacle of the play, as a dramatic experience, is the moment Sterling gets to see them, after an enormous buildup.  The payoff is worth it.  Sterling (beautifully realized by Murray) gasps, staggers, a tough man momentarily reduced to helpless wonderment.  To like effect is the moment shortly afterwards where the suitcase full of money intended to buy the stamps is unzipped; thanks to Charles Danforth’s smart lighting, the bundles of cash literally glow, and Jackie hovers above them, almost inhaling the smell of the money.  These objects, then, are presented with so much elaboration that the chiaroscuro handling of the characters is all the more puzzling.

The final resolution of the plot, I think, is intended to show one of the sisters growing as person, and reasserting a nascent integrity.  But – and perhaps my frustration here is an artifact of my day job as a lawyer – her abandonment of claims to the stamps is neither well explained nor well advised.  (Personally, I would have counseled her that hers was the better-founded claim.)  In any case, it’s sloppy dramatically.  And, as I said earlier, if you as a playwright are doing a critique of materialism run wild, such sloppiness may be forgivable, but not so much if all you’re engaged in is a well-crafted entertainment.

Mark Steckbeck’s direction could help resolve these matters, but does not.  Of course, he has to present the play as written.  But there are nuances of characterization he should oversee, and it looks as if he left the actors to their own devices. 

Vic Cheswick’s Dennis is the most glaring case; he has the perfect combination of physique, voice and looks to portray a youngish con man on the make.  He resembles and sounds like Charlie Sheen at his most oleaginous.  At the end, though, he does something that appears to be founded in some rough moral sense.  But if the emergence of integrity was intended to be his character’s arc, something in his earlier manipulations should have been presented with a reluctance, a rueful self-awareness.  But there was nothing.  He has come across as the worst kind of used-car salesman up to that moment. 

Then there is Abby Scharbach’s portrayal of Mary.  Steckbeck allows her to be shrill and impassioned where she should be icy and cutting.  She seems not to have been told what to do during the long (too long) stretches where her character is onstage with nothing to do but react in silence to the doings of the other characters.  As a result she presents as utterly unlikeable, which makes the denouement all the more puzzling.

Having said all this, I may have dwelt on the imperfections in the play and the performance too thoroughly.  Rebeck is a prolific and up-and-coming playwright, and there is much brilliance in the play, for all its flaws.  And the same could be said of the performance.  If for no other reason, come and see it for Mikulski and Murray, who are brilliant in their portraits of people seduced by want of money and love of stamps, respectively.

Mauritius by Theresa Rebeck, January 15-February 13, at Fells Point Corner Theatre, 251 South Ann Street, Baltimore, MD  21231.  410-563-9135. .  Tickets $10-$17.  Moderate violence and extreme language.

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