Theater Review - Stamp act: Mauritius at Actor's Express

Actor's Express' twisty thriller Mauritius turns on a question of authenticity: Is a pair of rare stamps really worth a seven-figure payout? Theresa Rebeck's play explores issues of forgery and perceived value, questions that could be applied to Mauritius itself, which initially resembles a facsimile of American Buffalo.

David Mamet's 1975 classic depicts a trio of losers in a hole-in-the-wall junk shop planning a score around a rare coin. For a while, Mauritius comes across as a Mamet-wannabe with women added to the mix. The play proves truly worthy in its second act, as if the real thing were only disguised as a fake.

Cara Mantella (who portrayed the naive nun in the Alliance Theatre's Doubt) plays Jackie, a daughter struggling to settle her late mother's "financial quagmire," to say nothing of the raw emotions surrounding her death. Her selfish half-sister Mary (captured with surgical precision by Kathleen Wattis) offers no help and claims their late mother's only item of value, a neglected stamp collection. The sisters contend with figures from the shady underworld of, uh, philately, including a tetchy stamp expert (Richard Garner), a rich, obsessive collector (Chris Kayser) and a young hustler on the make (promising newcomer Bryan Brendle) who's either going to help Jackie, or con her, or both.

At first, some of Mantella's awkwardness and Kayser's "Sopranos"-style swagger (not to mention the show's fight choreography) seem arch and artificial, evoking the playwright's day job as a writer for television. Mauritius' second act, however, builds to maximum tension in a negotiation scene, Mantella's and Kayser's performances proving richer than they initially seemed. Cantella convincingly plays Jackie as young and desperate, but also shrewd enough to stare down a potential gangster with a vicious temper and a briefcase full of money.

In Mauritius, Rebeck and director Freddie Ashley keenly appreciate the art of the deal, and the way neither a seller nor a buyer wants to be the first to name a price. After a shaky start, Mauritius becomes so engrossing, it turns into the kind of play where you want to follow the characters offstage and find out what happens to them after the curtain. That alone is enough to make Mauritius a kind of collector's item.

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