Comically campy suspense-thrilled on Germantown stage

Local Life April 3, 2014 0 Comments

Steven Roberson Butler, Mckenzie Jones Clifford and Monroe Barrick are seen in The Drama Group's production of "Mauritius" in Pilling Hall at The First United Methodist Church of Germantown, 6001 Germantown Ave.

Steven Roberson Butler, Mckenzie Jones Clifford and Monroe Barrick are seen in The Drama Group’s production of “Mauritius” in Pilling Hall at The First United Methodist Church of Germantown, 6001 Germantown Ave.

by Hugh Hunter

Now running at The Drama Group in Germantown, “Mauritius” by Theresa Rebeck is slow to get started, and the characters sometimes feel almost comically unreal.  But just when you think all is lost, it turns into a tense suspense drama. So what’s going on?

In addition to plays, Rebeck has written extensively for television shows such as “L.A. Law” and “NYPD Blue.”  “Mauritius” is similar to such fare, but in this stage drama Rebeck switches gears from the usual suspense-thriller.

In this genre you are normally told enough about the characters to make them understandable, but “Mauritius” leaves you totally in the dark. Instead of getting revealing information, you are just teased with mysterious references to troubled pasts. (Rebeck has a Ph.D from Brandeis University in Victorian Era melodrama.)

“Mauritius” is largely the story of two half-sisters Jackie (McKenzie Jones Clifford) and Mary (Michele S. Scutti).  Older sister Mary left the family for unknown reasons. The sisters reunite for their mother’s funeral, but they immediately start to fight over rights to the family stamp collection.

The sisters are matched up against a trio of predatory men. Philip (Wayne Snover) runs a modest store that caters to stamp collectors. Dennis (Steven Roberson Butler) hangs out there, and Sterling (Monroe Barrick) is a shady gangster type who buys rare stamps.

In typical suspense-thriller fashion, everyone covets the buried treasure, in this case a pair of rare stamps from Mauritius worth millions. But apart from greed, you do not know much about the characters, whose larger motives remain inscrutable.

A few matters get cleared up. At first you are puzzled as to why Philip, a professional philatelist, refuses to examine Jackie’s collection. Later you realize he is nursing an intricate plot to avenge his anger about a woman he used to know.

But who is the woman, and what happened? What do the sisters really want from each other? How does Dennis, a virtual stranger, barge into their house and get accepted? Why is Jackie so unafraid to walk alone into a nest of vipers with a valuable stamp collection? How does a romance blossom in an utterly predatory environment? How does a professional con artist get so easily conned?

It is all a bit ludicrous. Then out of nowhere the show grabs your attention and turns into an enthralling suspense story. How does this happen? Directed by Robert Bauer, it may owe in part to strong acting from Barrick and Clifford in the Jackie-Sterling showdown scene.

I don’t know what was in the mind of the show’s creators, but I came to see “Mauritius” as comically campy. That this play turns into a successful suspense-thriller tells me the genre itself is so dumb you can even do away with plausible characters and still achieve an emotionally satisfying outcome.

The Drama Group is located at the First United Methodist Church of Germantown, 6001 Germantown Ave. “Mauritius” will run through April 5. Tickets available at the door. For more information, call 215-438-7331 or visit www.thedramagroup.org.

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