Mauritius is an island in the Indian Ocean, east of Madagascar. In 1847, when it was a British colony, the country issued two denominations of postage stamp – an orange one penny and a blue two pence – displaying the profile of a young Queen Victoria. Along the left hand side the words “Post Office” appear. These are the rarest and most valuable stamps in the world. In 2002 just the two pence stamp sold for £2 million. A pristine pair of them discovered in a deceased man’s stamp collection are coveted by all five characters in Theresa Rebeck’s 2005 play Mauritius, currently on the boards at Oldcastle.
This play was Rebeck’s Broadway debut and a Pulitzer Prize finalist and frankly, I expected more from it. Running just under two hours, you learn much more about philately (stamp collecting) than you do about the five characters in the play. Yeah, they all want the stamps, or, more properly, the money they can fetch. Who wouldn’t? You see enough of half-sisters Jackie (Meredith Meurs) and Mary (Doria Bramante), both of whom claim the stamp collection as their inheritance, to want to know much more about their backstory than you are given. There is also more to murky past between philatelist Philip (Richard Howe) and the shady character Sterling (Peter Langstaff) than Rebeck reveals. The fifth character, Dennis (Gabriel Vaughan), is an enigma while at the same time being the catalyst for the plot.
The Pulitzer nod and the fact that the actor playing Dennis on Broadway garnered a Tony nomination makes me suspect that this production isn’t firing on all cylinders, that there is something that director Eric Peterson or this cast aren’t getting, or aren’t giving the audience. Rebeck has written a purposefully oblique play, so someone has to fill in the blanks enough to make us care about these people.
Jackie and Mary shared a mother, who has just passed away, but not a father. Mary’s father died when she was young and Jackie’s father, we gather, was an abusive ne’er do well who has skipped the scene. Mary was old enough to escape the horror’s of their mother’s second marriage, Jackie wasn’t. Jackie blames Mary for abdicating her responsibility to their mother. The contested stamp collection belonged to Mary’s paternal grandfather with whom she shared a close relationship, hence her claim to ownership. Jackie feels that she has “earned” her inheritance by being there for their mother during her second marriage and her battle with the cancer that has finally claimed her life.
Jackie takes the stamp album to Philip’s business, where he buys, sells, and appraises stamps. When he refuses to even open the album, Dennis, who is lurking in the shop, possibly on some business for Sterling, agrees to take a look, over Philip’s objections, and spies first a 1918 Inverted Jenny (see photo) and then the pair of stamps from Mauritius. He takes news of his discovery to Sterling and together they plot to acquire the stamps under the table, cutting out Philip and the IRS.
Then there is that murky connection between Philip and Sterling that seems to render them both mortal enemies and oddly beholden to one another…
I suspect that both Meurs and Vaughan are either miscast, badly directed, or both. Meurs was terribly stagey in her acting at the top of the performance I attended, and Vaughan is not smarmy enough by half. While Langstaff managed to convey real physical menace, Vaughan never convinced me of Dennis’ dark side, which, had it been conveyed would have added considerable depth to the production.
Rebeck has crafted an intriguing set of twists and turns to her plot, and each character takes turns being the villain of the piece, but the most heartless turn of all belongs to Bramante’s Mary. She is well cast, projecting both the WASP looks and veneer of bonhomie that render Mary truly despicable.
I have included clear photos of the contested stamps in this review because they are so clearly presented in Cory Wheat’s projections. The screen dominates the playing area and each stamp appears as it is discussed, which connects the audience more closely to the action. No one is credited with set design, but Ursula McCarty and Roy Hamlin are listed as the production designers. A series of three and two-dimensional rectangles and a pair of hung window frames are moved to define location. And everything is covered in stamps, even the bag of chips that Dennis offers to Jackie. Cleverly, the window frames are crenellated to mimic the perforated edges of most stamps.
There is also no credit for costume design, which may explain why, when the action takes place over the course of two days, only Dennis gets a change of clothing.
Ultimately, all these rather unpleasant people get what they want, with the exception of Sterling, whose revenge is inevitable, but that is another story for another play.
Mauritius by Theresa Rebeck, directed by Eric Peterson, runs July 21-August 6, 2017 at Oldcastle Theatre Company, 331 Main Street in Bennington, VT. Production design by Ursula McCarty and Roy Hamlin; lighting design by David V. Groupé; projections/sound design by Cory Wheat; stage manager Gary Allan Poe. CAST: Meredith Meurs as Jackie, Richard Howe as Philip; Gabriel Vaughan as Dennis, Peter Langstaff as Sterling, and Doria Bramante as Mary. The show runs two hours with one intermission.