SALT LAKE CITY — Philately is a dirty-sounding word for what might be considered the very dull hobby of stamp collecting, but when two thumbnail-sized pieces of paper are worth millions of dollars, things can get interesting quickly. If you add a strong dose of abusive family relationships and some old-fashioned scam artistry, you can expect things to get harry all too fast.
While the island of Mauritius is a tropical paradise in the Indian Ocean, this play revolves around two postage stamps created there during Queen Victoria’s reign. Among the earliest stamps ever created, they were initially printed with a typo that has, in one of those ludicrous quirks of capitalism, made them extraordinarily valuable. Theresa Rebeck’s script seems to give an offhand nod to the fact that, like the history of this colonized island itself and the enslaved people who once owned it, the stamps are only as valuable as the men who control it deem them to be.
The script is written in modern, naturalistic dialog that is always a challenge to deliver fluidly. In what may be termed ‘Mamet Speak,’ words and phrases are strung together, chopped at odd moments and theoretically intended to sound the way people do when having a particularly roundabout or high-stakes conversation. This style is also a beast to memorize, and while on opening night the actors give it a good effort, the first half hour limped awkwardly. The unfortunate part of this struggle is that Rebeck’s script soars in the moments when she leans into heightened language. At one point, the heroine, Jackie, poetically describes how the money from these stamps would help her grow wings to fly away from her broken life. In another, Sterling, a sharply dressed mobster, launches into a speech about his tactile lust for the beautiful stamps. In these moments, I felt something for what are otherwise a heartless pack of characters.
Matt Whittaker as Sterling excelled at communicating the emotional nuance behind his intentionally clunky dialogue. The playwright is unspecific about the backstories of these characters, which can also pose a challenge for an actor, but I felt I could write a life history of Sterling based on Whittaker’s physical, vocal, and emotional presence. Nicolas Dunn as the washed-out stamp expert was appropriately sniveling and conniving. Suni Gigliotti as the “damaged” heroine Jackie bravely faces the hurtle of playing an abuse victim who has to keep repeating that she’s not crazy while making completely unstable choices. Lindsay Higbee as Jackie’s estranged half-sister Mary is appropriately cold and calculating. The character who left me scratching my head was Dennis, played by Max Huftanlin. The character inserts himself as everyone’s trusted and charming go-between, but his true intentions and desires are never clarified. This lack of clarification became a roadblock for the wrap up of what is an intentionally structured plot.
The production choices are simple and effective. Sound designer Joshua Manning’s excellent use of a ticking clock in the final act is the only effect that I noted. Jessica Rubin’s costumes are also effective at setting up a clear picture of each character. Director Jared Larkin keeps the blocking and sets of his own design clear, allowing for sharp focus on key emotional moments. Especially effective was the unsettling physical creep of men toward Jackie. Gigliotti excelled at showing the rising tide of ‘fight or flight’ adrenaline that she faced each time a man approached her. And she gets approached a lot. To be frank, I’m done with plays where violence against women is used as a convenient plot device for high stakes action. Zac Curtis’s fight choreography lacked either the vigor or execution to make the combat as emotionally difficult to stomach as it should have been. To be clear, I’m not saying I ever want to feel an actor is being endangered. Rather, if there is going to be a moment where a woman is nearly killed because of an outburst of male rage, I need to see that this event impacts everyone on stage, and I need it to impact the audience in a way that does more than make them wonder what will happen next. The violence here is handled casually with characters giving the excuse that it’s nothing new or they should have known better, but the impact of the damage is not shown. Perhaps this element too will be something that develops as the run continues, but these moments left me feeling uncomfortable in all the wrong ways.
Mauritius showcases a good set of actors and interesting writing. While there are elements that could use more development and practice, the production as a whole is worth seeing. Pinnacle Acting Company tackles the difficulty of the script admirably. There is strong language and graphic violence in the show, so the play is not recommended for children under the age of 16.