Two half-sisters dispute the ownership of a collection of rare stamps, as they sort through the belongings of their deceased mother. Mauritius is not a nuanced study of character, but a thriller, with the stakes apparently minor at first, but mounting as three males, each with his own individual agenda, seek to manipulate the sisters. One stamp in particular, from the tiny African country of Mauritius, may be of incalculable value.
Jackie inherited the stamps from her mother, but half-sister Mary asserts they weren't hers to give, as they belonged to the paternal grandfather, to whom Jackie is not related. Enter Dennis, young and with the gift of gab, who sweet-talks both sisters, and hopes get a broker's commission as he puts Jackie in touch with Sterling, a wealthy collector with a passion for rare stamps, and for violence, in roughly equal proportions. The owner of a rare stamp shop is Philip, jaded, and with a prior experience years back with Sterling that has left him embittered and hostile.
Jackie, portrayed by Rachel Landsman, is the best-written character, as she evolves from relative naiveté into a determined negotiator who can face down even Sterling, with his wealth and menace. Mary, played by Shivani Morrison, has the most hapless role, as much of her dialogue is repetitive, and she is given little chance to be likable.
Ben Seidensticker captures the energy and drive of Dennis, but plays him so slick that it's difficult to believe that Dennis gains the trust of Jackie. Thomas "T.C." Weinlandt plays Sterling and creates a violent, volatile character, but also makes us believe in his sensual addiction to philately. I especially admired Adrien Pellerin as Philip, who captured both jaded indifference and simmering anger, while persuading us that he has legitimate expertise and authority.
The scenes shift between Jackie's home and the shop, and the shifting is smooth indeed as one entire set exits stage left as the second set enters stage right. Matthew Schlief did the scenic design, and Justin Tannahill did the lighting design, and both work well. Julia Traber, who had a triumph earlier this year directing The Lion in Winter, here works with less experienced actors, and there is accordingly less flavor and variety in the performances, except for Pellerin.
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But in a thriller, the plot's the thing, along with suspense and surprises, and playwright Theresa Rebeck delivers these beautifully. The final long scene as negotiations tighten, secrets are revealed, deceptions uncovered and new lies spawned, shows craftsmanship and skill, and holds our interest throughout.
You will learn some interesting information about stamp-collecting, and even more about the seamy side of human nature, as cupidity and greed ooze into the spotlight. In some ways, Mauritius echoes David Mamet's acclaimed American Buffalo, about a reputedly rare coin, but Rebeck's surprises are more intriguing, and we have the added benefit of a budding romance. Rice University has done well to present this challenging work, providing both entertainment and suspense. The verdict:
The genre of theatrical thriller remains alive and well in this very contemporary play, with enough surprises and twists for several thrillers, and with dedicated actors keeping the action flowing.
Mauritius continues through April 13, at Hamman Hall, Rice University, 6100 Main St. For information or ticketing, call 713-348-7529 or contact www.theatre.rice.edu.