When it comes to collecting stamps, mistakes and errors augment the value – a paradox that’s at the center of Theresa Rebeck’s intriguing thriller “Mauritius.” Her background in writing television crime dramas is evident in both the atmosphere and dialogue of the play, which receives riveting treatment at Milwaukee Chamber Theatre.
“Mauritius” refers to a small island nation off the southeast coast in Africa. In 1847, the island became the fifth location worldwide and the first British colony to issue postage stamps. But the engraver mistakenly put “Post Office” instead of “Post Paid” on the 1- and 2-cent stamps featuring the head of a young Queen Victoria.
Out of this simple mistake, Rebeck has fashioned a complex drama about “two tiny little slips of paper, so small that they barely exist,” but are worth millions of dollars in today’s stamp-collecting marketplace.
After their mother dies, Jackie and her much older half-sister Mary discover their grandfather’s stamp collection. Behind Mary’s back, Jackie decides to quickly cash in on the stamps and gets mixed up with a group of foul-mouthed, male con artists. When they discover the Mauritius stamps in her possession, the chase is on to see who will out-con the other to get the prize.
The desperate younger sister Jackie will stop at nothing, although the stamps actually belong to the self-righteous Mary. Sterling, the thuggish brute of a collector, will also do whatever’s needed to win. Throw in the scheming charmer who pulls them all together and a distrustful stamp expert, and this motley crew of characters could populate a David Mamet play (sheer number of expletives included).
Director and Milwaukee native Andrew Volkoff makes the very most of Rebeck’s story with an intensity of pacing and energetic bursts of dialogue and action that keep the audience rapt for two hours and 10 minutes (there’s a 15-minute intermission to breathe and prepare for the second act’s denouement). Scenic designer J. Branson creates a spot-on drab, forlorn atmosphere for the stamp store and its dubious characters, moving the sets fluidly between a home and coffee shop setting.
But it’s the ensemble cast that makes “Mauritius” an engaging crime caper. Betsy Skowbo as older sister Mary and C. Michael Wright as the world weary shopkeeper provide stable contrasts to the extreme mood swings, literally and figuratively, of younger sister Jackie (an excellent performance by UWM student Sara Zientek) and the madman Sterling, played to sinister perfection by local stage veteran Drew Brhel. Jonathan Wainwright navigates the difficult middle ground as middle man Dennis, a judicious balance between faux confident con man and nervous henchman.
“There is damage there,” says Dennis while eyeing Jackie in her desperate attempt to sell the stamps. “Damage.”
And in this play, “damage” carries a great deal of value for some, a great loss for others. It all depends on what you value.