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The Unicorn’s Mauritius gets a stamp of approval

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As double crosses accumulate and desperate characters wrangle amusingly for priceless postage stamps, Mauritius might surprise you.

Now enjoying a crisp and intelligent production at the Unicorn, Mauritius aims at nothing more than telling a good, old-fashioned story. Playwright Theresa Rebeck and director Cynthia Levin ace the story's fundamentals — compelling characters, marvelous pacing, dialogue that sounds like the best of what real people might actually say — so that a show just aspiring to be good feels touched with something almost great. Here's a low-key crime story brushed with real feeling, a noirish tangle of double crosses and stamp theft. Walking out afterward, even this high-minded crowd bubbled with the pleasure of this twisty genre exercise. We hadn't been challenged or had our consciousness raised, as we expect at the Unicorn. Instead, for once, all that was subordinate to the tale.

At first, Mauritius seems thin. Opening scenes reveal that some stamps have fallen into the hands of Jackie (Cinnamon Schulz), a down-on-her-luck woman wearing the kind of studiously ripped jeans that costume designers assume still indicate youthful disaffection. Jackie assumes that the collection is good for a couple of thousand bucks, but Dennis (Darren Kennedy), a charming lout who hangs out at the stamp store, realizes it's worth millions. He brings in Sterling (Jim Korinke), a crime boss with philatelic passions. Together, they hope to buy the stamps from Jackie at a fraction of their worth. Complications ensue, and soon all these characters (and a couple of others) are teaming and re-teaming to claim the collection.

So far, this is standard stuff. At crucial moments, though, Rebeck places less emphasis on the stamps than she does on the people. Family conflicts deepen the impasses. The collection had come to Jackie as a gift from her just-passed mother, whom Jackie tended to the end. However, Jackie's half-sister Mary (Jennifer Aguilar) also claims it as her inheritance from the grandfather who did the actual collecting — a grandfather Jackie didn't know. Half-siblings who less than half know each other, Jackie and Mary pick at each other, with Jackie mostly letting Mary, the "real" family member, make the decisions — including one to leave Jackie alone to pay off the mother's debts.

In their scenes together, both actresses are superb. Schulz here is raw and jittery, communicating with every scowl (and the smiles she often tries to fight off) that Jackie's been scraped of all hope. Now Jackie is angry, uncertain, devious and a little cocky. Schulz does especially strong work with her reedy, pinched-up voice: On opening night, in a gutsy monologue, so much fluid had balled up in her throat that she had to drop an octave. At this point, light entertainment becomes something more true and involving.

Aguilar is so effective as one of the villains that the woman sitting beside me kept hissing that the character needed to be decked. Prim, entitled and manipulative, Mary feels true to life even when Rebeck's script pushes her into darker territory than we expect.

Korinke is also impressive (and great fun) as he sharks about in a wicked black suit and spouts tough-guy talk that, through no real fault of his, sometimes jarred me out of the play. Less impressive is Kennedy, whose clean-cut schemer is so dashing and toothsome that a long early scene, where he pumps Jackie and Mary for information, doesn't cut like it should.

In the second act, when the characters are in over their heads, Levin works cast and crowd through Rebeck's reversals with a fierce authority. She times each burst of emotion or violence just right, and pleased ahas from the audience indicate that people are working out the various mysteries when they are meant to. By the climax, we hang happily on the question of what should be done with these stamps — not a question we're likely to return to, once we're out of the theater and back in the world, but one to make us relish the time we're inside the theater.

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