Sunday, April 12, 2009

Cygnet’s Mauritius: Good Production of Strong but Unoriginal Play


Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

PHOTO: John DeCarlo as Dennis, Jessica John as Jackie and Manny Fernandes as Sterling in Cygnet Theatre’s production of Theresa Rebeck’s Mauritius. (Courtesy Cygnet Theatre.)

Cygnet Theatre’s current production — and their next-to-last at their founding home at 6663 El Cajon Boulevard in the Rolando area before they move permanently to their alternate location at the Old Town Theatre — is a strong if not particularly original play called Mauritius by Theresa Rebeck, who in a nearly 20-year career writing for stage, film and TV has won at least four awards for her work on the now-defunct series NYPD Blue as well as cranking out enough plays to fill three volumes published by Smith and Kraus. “As a writer,” she says on the home page of her Web site, “I have always considered it my job to describe the world as I know it; to struggle toward whatever portion of the truth is available to me.” Elsewhere, in a New York Times interview, she described her plays as being about “betrayal and treason and poor behavior. A lot of poor behavior.”

Mauritius is an island about 550 miles off the coast of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. Today it’s the largest part of a multi-island country, also called Mauritius, that includes St. Brandon, Rodrigues and the Agalega Islands as well. It’s famous for two things: as the only known home of the dodo bird — which was first sighted there in 1600 and was extinct 80 years later — and as one of the first places in the world that issued postage stamps. (Before that, if you wanted to mail something you took it to a post office, the postal clerk weighed it, told you how much it would cost, you paid the money and he wrote on the upper right corner of the envelope a receipt for how much you’d paid.) In 1847, when Mauritius was a British colony, the colonial administration hired a jeweler on the island to carve a woodcut to make the first Mauritian stamps — only the jeweler put the words “Post Office” on the stamp where it was supposed to read “Post Paid.”

The handful of stamps Mauritius printed with that mistake became, as Rebeck constantly reminds us in her script, “the crown jewels of philately.” Indeed, the program for Cygnet’s production of Mauritius includes an introduction by Steve Ellis, member of the American Philatelic Society and the Royal Philatelic Society, explaining the significance of these ultra-rare stamps: “Having been owned by a Rothschild, Count Ferrary (probably the greatest collector of British stamps in history) and several other prominent businesspeople over the years, the Mauritius stamps have a rich tradition. … The fact that these extremely rare stamps were sold at auction for millions of dollars certainly adds to the intrigue.”

Mauritius had its world premiere in 2007 at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Biltmore Theatre in New York. Cygnet is giving the play its second Southern California production, opening just seven days after the regional premiere in Pasadena. Most of the pre-production publicity has compared her to David Mamet — the characters work out of grungy locales and swear a lot — and made the play seem like Mamet’s American Buffalo with a rare stamp (two rare stamps, actually) instead of a rare coin. But Mauritius also hearkens back to The Maltese Falcon — particularly when the authenticity, or lack thereof, of the stamps in question becomes a major plot point in the second act — and to a long tradition of stories in which people are corrupted by the greed instilled in them by the promise of a sudden unearned windfall.

Though somewhat hamstrung by its lack of originality. Mauritius is nonetheless effective drama. It opens in the rather sorry-looking stamp store of Philip (Jack Missett), where Jackie (Jessica John), a young woman who’s closing the estate of her recently deceased mother and trying to cope with all the debts she’s inherited, has come for an appraisal of her grandfather’s old stamp album. Dennis (John DeCarlo), a regular hanger-on at the store, happens to be there just then and gets excited by the presence of two Mauritius “Post Office” stamps in Jackie’s album — but he’s got enough of a poker face to try to keep her from catching on to the potential value of the find. Jackie also has to contend with her half-sister Mary (Sandy Campbell), who points out that the original owner of the album was her grandfather, not Jackie’s, and therefore the stamps are rightfully hers even though she hasn’t had any contact with the family for 10 years previously. Also interested in the stamps is the thug-like Sterling (Manny Fernandes, who doubles as Cygnet’s P.R. person), whom Dennis has lined up as a potential buyer.

Rebeck plays the irony card early on by having one of the characters mention the PBS-TV series Antiques Roadshow, that real-life Cinderella story in which people routinely learn that some piece of obscenely ugly junk they’ve kept in their garages for decades is actually considered a priceless objet d’art by somebody or other. But instead of the ecstasy the Antiques Roadshow guests invariably fall into, the emotions of Mauritius are darker, nastier and expressed in enough physical violence that Cygnet had to call in George Yé as fight choreographer. Over the course of the evening, a few dreams are dashed, a few nasty reversals take place, and some of the characters emerge sadder and wiser.

Mauritius is generally well acted and especially noteworthy for casting two of the key cast members decidedly against type. Jessica John has been seen at several local theatres, usually in the role of the innocent ingénue — and that’s what she starts at here, though as the play progresses Rebeck turns her character harder and more avaricious, and John nails all the changes and keeps us identifying with her totally even when we don’t like what she’s doing. Manny Fernandes has also specialized in playing decent young guys, and it’s a real revelation to see him as a gangster type, complete with shaved head — looking at the nice head of hair on his head shot and comparing that to what he looks like on stage will impress as an outward sign of his commitment and dedication.

The other performances are well done, though Rebeck hasn’t given the other characters the kinds of wrenching transformations she puts Jackie through and therefore the other players have less with which to work. Through much of his performance Missett seems to be channeling the actors of Odd Couples past, Walter Matthau on film and Jack Klugman on TV, doing crochety avuncularity so well that at least one of the surprises in Rebeck’s ending is truly surprising. John DeCarlo makes Dennis perhaps a bit too lovable for a character who’s supposed to be pathetic in both senses of the word, and Sandy Campbell plays Mary as such a one-dimensional bitch that even when she disclaims any personal interest in the stamps’ value and says she wants to see them displayed in a museum, we still don’t like her.

Director Francis Gercke doesn’t give the piece the frantic energy Cygnet’s artistic director, Sean Murray, brings to his own productions, but he gets the job done, works well with the actors and exploits the length of Cygnet’s stage. Sean Fanning has created another extraordinary set, whose movable panels (manipulated by the actors themselves between scenes) effectively transform from Philip’s shop to the home of Jackie’s and Mary’s mother and back. Jessica John, in addition to starring as Jackie, is also credited as costume designer, and she knows what she’s doing in both capacities; the “power” outfit she found for Sandy Campbell is especially apt. Eric Lotze’s lighting and Matt Lescault-Wood’s sound design also work well, and Yé’s fight choreography allows the actors to have at each other when Rebeck calls on them to without looking like they’re too good at it.

The best thing that can be said for both Rebeck’s play and Gercke’s direction of it is that the show actually seems shorter than the two hours (less intermission) it runs. Though Mauritius doesn’t exactly blaze a new trail in drama, it makes its points about greed and the corruption of the human spirit ably enough — and Cygnet’s production is up to the company’s high standards and makes a good case for the play.

Mauritius runs through Sunday, May 10 at Cygnet Theatre, 6663 El Cajon Boulevard, Suite N in the Rolando area. Performance times are 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, and 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. For tickets or more information, call (619) 337-1525 or visit