AISLE SAY San Francisco


by Theresa Rebeck
Directed by Loretta Greco
Presented by & at Magic Theatre
Building D, Fort Mason Center, San Francisco / (415) 441-8822

Reviewed by Judy Richter

Theresa Rebeck's "Mauritius" is one edgy play -- edgy as in it keeps you on the edge of your seat. You're not quite sure what's going to happen next, especially in the Magic Theatre production staged by artistic director Loretta Greco.

It starts quietly enough when a young woman, Jackie (Zoƫ Winters) enters a shabby-looking stamp shop where the owner, Philip (Warren David Keith), sits at his desk reading a book. After a minute or two, it's obvious that he's ignoring her despite her efforts to get his attention. She wants him to look at a stamp collection given to her by her late mother. He rudely brushes her off, telling her he can't be bothered. A young man, Dennis (James Wagner), who has been quietly sitting in the corner, intervenes, urging Philip to at least look, but he refuses. Dennis glances through the book, evidently seeing enough to convince him that it would be worth his while to follow her and see where she lives.

Thus begins the battle for a pair of extremely rare stamps from Mauritius, an island in the Indian Ocean. Dennis tells a rich, stamp-collecting friend, Sterling (Rod Gnapp), about the stamps. Sterling doesn't believe him but wants to see them nonetheless. In the meantime, Jackie's older half-sister, Mary (Arwen Anderson), who has come home to help Jackie go through their mother's things, wants the stamp collection herself because it came from her grandfather. Eventually Jackie, Dennis and Sterling meet at Philip's shop to negotiate Sterling's purchase of the two stamps.

Rebeck has created five unique characters who, with their ways of talking and behaving, probably would be at home in a play by David Mamet. Even though we don't know much about them, such as their occupations (except for Philip), outside the world of the play, each is sharply defined by the actors. The only character that the audience can begin to trust is Jackie, and even she has her moments of unpredictability to go with her vulnerability. She's also a tough negotiator in the face of Gnapp's scary, expletive-spouting Sterling, a man who seems to get a sensuous, almost sexual pleasure from the thought of owning such extreme rarities in the world of philately. Wagner's Dennis is a smooth, charming operator, but his motives are highly suspect. Anderson's Mary becomes more selfish and devious as the play progresses, and even Keith's Philip shows a sleazy side in a game of shifting alliances.

James Faerron's set easily switches from Philip's shop to Jackie's messy apartment. Costumes by Alex Jaeger and lighting by Sarah Sidman enhance the drama, as does the sound design by production director Sara Huddleston. The fight choreography is by Dave Maier.

The play also is thought-provoking, especially as it examines not only issues of trust but also the question of what constitutes value. Is it how much someone is willing to pay for something? Is it something unique in the world? Issues of utility have no bearing here. After all, the two stamps are just two tiny pieces of paper. Yes, they're old, and a printing error makes them unique, but you can no longer use them to mail a letter. However, if you want to sell them, you can make millions, and if you're rich enough to buy them, you have bragging rights. For the avid collector like Sterling, evidently that's enough.

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