Greed, obsession, treachery
The Milwaukee Chamber Theatre offers an escape, of sorts, but not to the island nation of Mauritius, as the title of Theresa Rebeck’s play would imply. The play is more like a rollercoaster ride through the “stuff that dreams are made of.”
Rebeck’s play brings to mind Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, with its many dark twists and turns, each revealing shadowy motivations of shady, colorful characters. But Hammett paraphrases Shakespeare in a classic film noir; Rebeck’s tone is more David Mamet.
Mauritius, set in Chicago and environs, opens in a tawdry stamp store operated by Philip (C. Michael Wright, MCT’s producing artistic director). Wright channels a bit of Dustin Hoffman’s Ratso Rizzo in a wonderfully understated performance. His Philip reveals wistful seediness beneath smart-aleck bravado.
Newcomer Sara Zientek, a UW-Milwaukee theater student, is well cast as the determined Jackie, who is driven to find a better life with the riches she hopes to acquire. Her edgy character, toughened by a hard-knock life, won’t be kept down. Zientek found her stride in the second act; as Jackie showed her smarts, and Zientek’s pacing improved.
Drew Brhel gave a commanding performance as the sinister Sterling, the money man with a weakness for rare stamps. The ghost of Sydney Greenstreet hovered over Brhel, but only briefly. Brhel’s Sterling exudes a simmering anger and becomes almost giddy at the sight of the stamps.
The pivotal character, Dennis, at first appears to be an Eddy Haskell-type nerd. But he gradually charms the two women into believing he is smarter than he really is. Jonathan Wainwright gives a masterful depiction of a con man whose gritty desperation rides just beneath a smooth-talking surface. Dennis also has many of the play’s pithiest lines, including his observation about the stamps: “It’s the errors that make them valuable.” We know that he could also be referring to each of the characters.
Betsy Skowbo makes the most of the play’s most enigmatic figure. Mary is tightly wound and seems less able than her half-sister to give up her attachment to the past. But she knows how to push Jackie’s buttons, and their interaction drives much of the comedy in Mauritius.
The clever set by J Branson easily alternates between Philip’s shop and the sisters’ apartment. Sound designer Mikhail Fiksel and lighting designer Holly Blomquist create an ominous mood, complete with the looming thunder of passing elevated trains. Mauritius marks the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre directing debut of Milwaukee native Andrew Volkoff, who is now based in New York City.
Mauritius runs through March 13 in the Broadway Theatre Center’s Studio Theatre, in Milwaukee’s Historic Third Ward. Tickets are available at the BTC box office, 158 N. Broadway, 414 291-7800 and the MCT website.
If you’re coming to the show Wednesday, Feb. 23, drop by at 6:30 p.m. Tom Strini, TCD Culture Editor, will give the pre-show Viewpoint talk at 6:30 p.m. And he will show you his stamp collection. Really.