Regional Reviews: New Jersey
Two 2007 Broadway Plays Debut in New Jersey: The Seafarer at George Street Playhouse/ Mauritius at Women's Theater Company
Last year at this time, The Seafarer and Mauritius were making their Broadway debuts. These very entertaining plays are now available to New Jersey audiences in first rate productions.
The setting is Baldoyle, an Irish coastal village northeast of Dublin on Christmas Eve. More specifically, it is the unkempt, run down house of the recently gone blind and besotted Richard, an aging, boisterous bachelor. Living with him is his solicitous younger brother Sharky who has just returned home. Sharky is a haunted loser whose life has been a series of self-inflicted disasters. He has returned to the house after losing a chauffeur's job in another town because of his dalliance with his employer's wife. Sharky is bitter about the fact that, since his break-up with the woman whom he truly loves, she has been living with their old friend Nicky. A regular presence at the house, to the chagrin of his own wife, is their friend Ivan. Ivan dutifully tends to the needs of Richard, both out of friendship and for want of the booze which Richard unstintingly provides to him. Sharky is trying to stay off the booze after being injured in a senseless altercation with local punks upon his return to Baldoyle.
Ignoring Sharky's strong objections, Ivan invites Nicky to join them for a Christmas Eve game of poker. Ivan arrives, bringing with him Mr. Lockhart, who is dressed in sartorial splendor. The confident and ever more menacing Mr. Lockhart is no less than the Devil himself. Sharky is in debt to the Devil, and The Seafarer inevitably will culminate in a card game for his soul.
Under the meticulous direction of Anders Cato, this is a first rate production. All of the rich humor of the bantering inebriates is captured. However, the play is essentially a good short story and is somewhat slack and padded at almost two and three quarter hours. On Broadway, The Seafarer was no larger in scale, but an acclaimed ensemble performance of rare quality directed by the author featuring two members of the cast of the London National Theatre production and a faster pace made the play tighter and more riveting.
David Adkins most effectively and efficiently conveys the haunted quality of Sharky. Neither the longest nor the showiest role in the play, Sharky is the spiritual center of the play. David Schramm, who does have the longest and showiest role, smoothly and believably captures the outsized personality and comic robustness of his blind brother, Richard. Robert Cuccioli, a superlative stalwart of New Jersey stages, still seems to be trying to find the key to unlocking the role of the Devil. Cuccioli is suave, but otherwise an uncertain tone marks his performance. There is tentativeness in his expressions of amusement as well as in his projection of menace. William Hill is a good Ivan and has a great face for a character actor (with a certain resemblance to Elisha Cook, Jr.), but he does overwork his humorous shtick. Matthew Boston is a properly self-centered and arrogant Nicky.
The large and detailed authentic set by R. Michael Miller has a marvelously lived-in, dilapidated look. Jennifer Moeller's excellent costumes go from the tatty to the sartorial as required.
While far from typical, The Seafarer is a most fitting and adult story for the Christmas season.
The Seafarer continues performances (Evenings: Tuesday-Saturday 8 p.m./ Sun. 7 p.m./ Matinees: Thursday, Saturday, Sunday/ Wednesday 11/22 only 2 p.m. (No performances Thurs. 11/27; No Eve. Sun. 12/14) through December 14, 2008 at the George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, NJ 08901; Box Office: 732-246-7717; online: www.GSPonline.org.
The Seafarer by Conor McPherson; directed by Anders Cato
Photo: T. Charles Erickson
The Women's Theatre Company is in fine form with its terrifically entertaining production of Theresa Rebeck's twisty and gripping melodrama Mauritius. The play works exceptionally well as a witty noir thriller. At the very end, the play careens wildly off the track in a series of plot contrivances which are both unsatisfying and require a number of intelligent characters to act with impossible stupidity. Until then, Mauritius is such grand fun that it can be recommended unreservedly.
Jackie, an unlettered, comic book reading, mentally fragile young woman, possesses a stamp collection which has been left to her by her recently deceased mother. As it turns out, the collection includes a misprinted "crown jewel of philately," a extremely rare, incredibly valuable pair of "one and two penny" stamps that were issued in 1839 by the government of Mauritius, an island off the east coast of Madagascar. As the play begins, Jackie enters a collectibles shop with the intention of having the stamp collection evaluated. The dour, unpleasant, skeptical proprietor Philip refuses to examine and evaluate the stamps without first receiving a large fee for his services. Jackie cannot afford his fee. Dennis, a down on his luck, looking-for-an-angle con artist hanging around his friend Philip's shop, who knows more than a bit about stamps himself, cannot resist the urge to examine the stamps himself. Convinced of the authenticity and of the stamps in question, Dennis initiates the con in motion.
Dennis sets up a meeting with Sterling, a devoted stamp collector, who is also an exceedingly rich, powerful and viciously psychopathic high level player in illegal international enterprises. Dennis sells Sterling on the authenticity of the stamps and his ability to set up the clueless Jackie to sell them to him for a small pittance. Back at their mother's apartment, we meet Jackie's much older half sister, Mary. Mary is a piece of work. Her father died when she was little. Mary then became very close to her paternal grandfather and the "original" owner of the stamps. She left home long ago at the age of 16. She had since deigned to have any contact with her mother and half sister, even when Jackie pled for her assistance while their mother was dying. Now she is here for the sole purpose of reclaiming the stamps (she is well aware of their value) which she claims as her rightful inheritance from her grandfather.
Many critics have pointed out the similarity between Mauritius and David Mamet's American Buffalo. In the later, three con men, one a dangerous psychopath, plot to gain control of a coin collection. However, no one owns that plot device. Rebeck's dialogue, stylistically miles apart from the elliptical writing of Mamet, and the central roles of Jackie and Mary make Mauritius very much Rebeck's own play. Parenthetically, as fond as I am of most of Mamet's work, I have always been in the minority in finding Buffalo a talented young writer's off-putting exercise in technical virtuosity. On the other hand, Rebeck's Mauritius is old fashioned melodrama at its most involving.
Julie Sihilling's performance grows stronger and more affecting as the play progresses. I am differentiating between the performance and role here. Sihilling's Jackie feels extremely young and her combination of vulnerability and tensile strength is most affecting. Lenny Bart throughout reveals glimmers of Dennis' decency without sacrificing his slimy, manipulative persona. By doing this, Bart adds luster to the moving moment when, despite his fear of Sterling, he agrees to protect Jackie from the extreme jeopardy in which she has placed herself. In view of the reported romantic interest in Jackie which Bobby Cannavale displayed in the MTC production of Mauritius, Bart's avuncular take on Dennis' attitude toward Jackie appears to be an original approach to the role.
Despite the fact that Rebeck provides a degree of justification for Mary's behaviors and Robin Marie Thomas minimizes the role's histrionics, Thomas still manages to increase the play's heat by invidiously turning Mary into the character that we love to hatequite an accomplishment in this company of thieves and liars who repeatedly double and triple cross one another. Nino Spallacci brings complete verisimilitude to the quietly bitter Nicky.
Duncan Rodgers has done good work on New Jersey stages before, but nothing that I have seen him in prepared me for his powerfully chilling and wittily performed Sterling. Even thinking about his performance in Mauritius' best scene puts a knot in my stomach. It is the one in which Sterling negotiates his purchase of the stamps with Jackie. Even if Philip hadn't spelled it out for us, Rodgers' Sterling makes it viscerally clear that he is walking out of the shop with the one and two penny stamps. The only question is whether Jackie will understand that Sterling is willing to treat her fairly and that, if she is not unreasonable, things will go well for her. Of course, such a one sided "negotiation" is inherently unfair. But never you mind. Rodgers smoothly combines evil menace with an amused and sincerely determined effort to save Jackie from the consequences of provoking his wrath. The result is that we find him to be fair and admirable even as we viscerally fear him. I found myself thinking, "Jackie, don't push Sterling too far. He's willing to give you a fair deal, even though he doesn't have to. Don't screw it up." Author Rebeck and actor Rodgers brilliantly invoke facts about our confiscatory tax system and keep the lawyers in clover legal requirements for conducting business to convince Jackie and the audience that we need have no moral compunction about eliminating the government from our transactions. I sincerely do hope that Rodgers and his agent can get the "right people" out to Lake Hiawatha to see his extraordinary performance.
Director Lauren Mills has delivered a swift and confident production, smoothly allowing us to set aside the considerable gaps in information provided concerning each of the characters. Theoretically, Mauritius would work better with more fully detailed characters. However, in the light of how good it is, it is too large a stretch to draw any such conclusion. Mills has also made good use of Greg Moran and Scott Hart's simple, effective set. Most of the wide narrow stage is occupied by the storefront stamp shop. The designers have not fallen into the trap of making it dark and menacing. At stage right is a small area largely filled with boxes (for packing the deceased mother's belongings), and the coffee shop is basically a table and chairs placed in front of the set.
Did I mention an unsatisfactory ending back in the first paragraph? Wish I could discuss my concerns about it in more detail as well my view that it could easily be mended without losing any of the twisty curves that Rebeck throws us. However, you will be much happier discovering and analyzing the climax for yourself. I'll just have to be satisfied with having had the pleasure of seeing the Women's Theater Company's superior production of Mauritius.
Mauritius continues performances (Eves: Fri. & Sat. 8 p.m./ Mats: Sun. 3 p.m.) through December 7, 2008 at the Women's Theater Company at the Parsippany Playhouse, 1130 Knoll Road, Lake Hiawatha, NJ, 07034; Box Office: 973-316-3033; on-line: www.womenstheater.org.
Mauritius by Theresa Rebeck; directed by Lauren Mills