The Odd Magic of New Theatre's Mauritius

You have to see it to believe it.

Mauritius is the best play ever written about stamps.

Well, it's not really about stamps (though philatelists will probably get a giddy jolt from its characters' learned discourse on all things stampy). Like Terrence McNally's The Lisbon Traviata, Mauritius uses the quirky passions of a small group of people as a launch pad for an investigation of passion. Or maybe that's reading too much into it. Maybe Mauritius is really just an innocent little caper about a girl and some grossly overvalued slips of paper. It's hard to tell, because Mauritius is inscrutable: At once laughable and trenchant, the play is both absurd and sufficiently emotionally authentic to make you feel like a voyeur.

Israel Garcia and Michaela Cronan in New Theatre's Mauritius
Israel Garcia and Michaela Cronan in New Theatre's Mauritius

Details

Mauritius: By Theresa Rebeck. Directed by Ricky J. Martinez. With Michaela Cronan, Michael McKeever, Israel Garcia, Bill Schwartz, and Kim Ehly. Through May 17. New Theatre, 4120 Laguna St., Coral Gables; 305-443-5909; new-theatre.org

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Also, it's flawed as hell. But it's still worth seeing.

Jackie (Michaela Cronan) is a young woman whose life sucks. Her mother has died after an unspecified ailment, and she is utterly alone save for her half-sister, Mary (Kim Ehly), who has swept into town to help settle the affairs of the deceased. Mary has been gone a long time, and things have gone poorly in her absence.

As Jackie puts it: "The fucking apocalypse hit our family!"

Jackie gets to keep nearly all of mum's possessions, but she is really interested in only one of them: a stamp collection. There are stamps that might be worth some money, and Jackie is broke. But Mary wants the collection too. She has a claim: It was originally compiled by her (not her half-sister's) grandfather. And Mary is an amateur stamp enthusiast.

In order to avoid a tricky and unpleasant legal battle — which Jackie, a constant pessimist, figures she'd lose anyway — Jackie wants to sell the collection quickly and under the table. She first attempts to enlist the help of Philip (Michael McKeever, sexily unshaven), a chronically depressed stamp store owner. But he's so hostile to non-philatelists he won't even look at the thing. It falls to Dennis (Israel Garcia), a jobless scamp who for some reason hangs out in Philip's store, to look at the collection and discover what's in it: an "Inverted Jenny" (according to Wikipedia, worth almost $1 million on the open market) and two 150-year-old "post office" stamps from the island nation of Mauritius (worth much, much more).

It should be noted that Dennis is as sad, broke, and desperate as Jackie. It should also be noted that he approaches a skeezy rich philatelist and arms dealer named Sterling (Bill Schwartz) to buy the stamps. And it should be mentioned that Sterling is violent and violently passionate about his favorite hobby and that he's probably not above knocking somebody off for the sheer hell of it. And Sterling wants those stamps very, very badly.

This is more plot synopsis than you need, but it illustrates something important about Mauritius: It's uncommonly complicated and convoluted. There is so much ardor surrounding these stamps, in fact, that at times you might find yourself unable to suspend disbelief — such as when Sterling refers to Philip as a "has-been" philatelist. (Has-been? Really? Most of us stamp-indifferent folks in the audience think someone who spends all day thinking about postage is a "never-was.")

That Mauritius connects anyway probably has something to do with Theresa Rebeck's writing, but it's difficult to say how much. Though the play recently ran on Broadway, and though Rebeck is a former Pulitzer nominee, something in the quality of the writing feels hurried or unfocused. Jackie, for example, claims she's never seen the ocean, yet Mauritius is set in New York City. How difficult is it to see the ocean from Manhattan?

Mauritius's success also probably has something to do with Ricky J. Martinez's direction and the capable cast. But these things, too, are fuzzy. Bill Schwartz really knows how to be a wise guy, but when he displays a strong emotion — which, as Sterling, he must do often — he falls into a series of stock movements he drags from show to show: dropping his chin to his breastbone, thrusting his groin forward, and waggling his eyebrows like crazy while his hands hang limp and twitching at his sides.

That's typical of the small problems dogging Mauritius — interpretive choices that seem underanalyzed or rough around the edges. There's also Michaela Cronan's awkward unhappiness in the opening scene, in which she seems more full of teen angst and petulance than I-just-lost-my-mother-and-my-life-sucks depression. Then there's Kim Ehly's inability to determine whether she's playing an unaware solipsist or an honest villain. Only Israel Garcia and Michael McKeever remain steady throughout. Both give impassioned, inventive performances that add depth to characters that probably look a little stock on paper.

But they don't make the show. Mauritius's odd magic is an energy thing. The play asks big questions about money versus sentiment, about familial ownership and responsibility, and about life's unfairness. And it asks them in such a way that they become ever more urgent. We begin Mauritius not caring about pouty little Jackie or her overvalued bits of paper; by the end, we believe these things are very important. Is there value in a bit of paper, beyond what it can be exchanged for? The play stops just short of asking the question aloud. But we are prepped to demand an answer anyway — both by the exquisite way the dialogue heats and speeds up throughout the show, as though the actors were playing some dangerous game of dramatic chicken, and by our own preoccupation with overvalued bits of paper. Mauritius dissects that preoccupation and examines its contours, without ever suggesting there's more at stake than postage.

 
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