‘Mauritius’ fresh, well-written and deserving of bigger crowd

Posted May 06, 2009, at 6:49 p.m.

Mothers without wills beware. Depending on what they’re worth, those sentimental collections gathering dust in the attic could set your children against each other and lure con men into the family fold long after you are gone.

That’s what happens to poor Jackie and Mary after their mother dies without properly bequeathing who would get grandfather’s stamp collection. And quite a collection it is, according to the three “experts” who want to profit from it.

So begins “Mauritius,” the darkly funny two-act comedy by Theresa Rebeck being performed this week by Penobscot Theatre Company at the Bangor Opera House. The play, directed here by Scott R.C. Levy, PTC’s producing artistic director, had its world premiere in 2006 at the Huntington Theatre in Boston and moved to Broadway the next year.

Levy and the company deserve full houses for having the guts to give a new play known to so few theatergoers its Maine premiere. People who hesitate to take a risk on an unfamiliar show should plunge headfirst into this thicket of surprising twists and turns.

The play’s name is taken from the former British colony located 500 miles east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. The stamps “Mauritius” revolves around were the first authorized by any British colonial government and show a young Queen Victoria. The first 500 each of the one- and two-cent stamps contained the error “post office” instead of “post paid.” That mistake, coupled with their rarity, has made the stamps valuable.

While other reviewers have compared Rebeck’s play to David Mamet’s “American Buffalo,” which centers on a fight amongst coin collectors over a nickel, “Mauritius” feels more like an episode of the late 1970s TV show “Soap.” The convoluted plot and overwrought characters are reminiscent of the groundbreaking comedy that ostensibly skewered soap operas but really showcased the foibles of human behavior.

The only problem with last Friday’s opening night performance was that just one cast member understood that. The rest seemed to be holding back something, stopping just short of the outrageous behavior that made Dominick Varney so hysterically frightening in the role of Sterling.

Sterling is one scary dude but he loves stamps and he’s liquid. In Varney’s hands, he’s also the most interesting character in drawer full of them. The entire theater vibrates when he’s on stage and when he points that long, bony finger at a fellow actor, electricity seems to zip down his arm and zap them.

Known for his comedic and musical roles at the University of Maine and PTC, nothing in Varney’s previous roles has prepared theatergoers for his menacing Sterling. The actor is delightfully and surprisingly sinister in a role that appears to have been written for him. Varney’s performance alone is a reason to see “Mauritius.”

Lacey Martin and Kristen Burkholder are very good as the dueling sisters, who are equally desperate. Martin could dial down the nervous desperation to give Jackie a bit more depth and as Mary, Burkholder might try to be a bit more bitchy to give the audience a glimpse of her inner Sterling.

Allen Adams and Christopher Yeatts also are fine in their roles as Philips and Dennis. Yeatts could exude a bit more charm and Adams a smidgen more sleaze. If the rest of the cast, however, simply would follow Varney’s lead and take one tiny step over the line of so-called civilized behavior, this would be the roller-coaster laugh ride Rebeck meant it to be.

PTC’s “Mauritius” isn’t perfect but it deserves a far larger audience than the small one that turned out opening night. Rarely do theatergoers in northern and eastern Maine have the opportunity to see as new and well-written a play as this one.

Mother’s Day is this weekend. What better way to get Mom to put down on paper who gets what after she’s gone than to show her what might happen if she doesn’t.

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