Thin Stamps, Tall Tales

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

Musicals, high school and otherwise, have been at the forefront of theater news for the past few months, but with the new season settling in, finally some non-musical plays are starting to appear.


Last week saw the opening of the first non-musical play on Broadway since early May. The play is titled Mauritius and it's written by Theresa Rebeck, a playwright who's been getting a good deal of attention since her work on Omnium Gatherum was shortlisted for a Pulitzer in 2004. Three of Rebeck's plays have been seen here in Los Angeles, but never in a major southland theater. With any luck, Mauritius won't be her LA main-stage debut.


The Broadway production boasts an excellent cast, but even actors like Alison Pill, Bobby Cannavale and Oscar-winner F. Murray Abraham can't save the stale sounding dialogue and the preposterous plot. Mauritius is about postage stamps, in particular, stamps with errors, like the infamous "inverted Jenny:" the 1918 stamp with the upside down airplane.


The two-dimensional characters in Rebeck's play are all trying to get rich off rare stamps—rare stamps that may or may not be forgeries. For a while, one assumes that the hokiness of the emotions and drama is because it's all an allegory for something (like David Mamet's far better American Buffalo, where the sale of a rare nickel acts as indictment of US Capitalism) but by the end of Mauritius its clear that Rebeck's play has no subtext. This is a major problem since the text alone isn't worth the price of a 41¢ stamp let alone a Broadway ticket.


Here on the West Coast, the first new play of the season is at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa: the world premiere of a new piece by Donald Margulies, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 2000 for his play Dinner with Friends. This new play is titled Shipwrecked! An Entertainment: The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (As Told By Himself) . It's lighter fare than Margulies' previous work, but it does offer a juicy role to its lead actor, who gets to play a Victorian mountebank with a knack for grand storytelling.

"Look at me! I'm a sailor. Wind in my hair, the salt on my skin. A man of the world at last. Everything is just as I dreamed it would be. Goodbye England. Goodbye!"


That's actor Gregory Itzin in the role of Louis de Rougemont. Itzin recently spent three seasons on the Fox show 24, but he's no stranger to the stage. Here at South Coast Rep, he's completely in control of what's essentially a one-man show. He makes Louis de Rougemont a thoroughly endearing ham—like a 19th century Richard Branson, with all of the bravado, just none of the sterling in the bank. His melodramatic, music hall gestures and the hint of a carnival barker in his voice give his performance just enough—but not too much—credibility.


For of course, as the title suggests, Louis de Rougemont's tales of adventure on the high seas and deserted desert isles turn out to not be true. Rougemont was the James Frey or JT Leroy of his day and when his adventures are proved fiction, he becomes a pariah in London society. The moral of Margulies' play is less persuasive than the fibbing. This is no doubt the playwright's point, but even at a brisk ninety minutes, the play should have a little more to say than simply: hey, opportunistic liars have been around forever, but at least they're colorful.

Itzin's performance—and the clever staging by Bart DeLorenzo—flush out Margulies skimpy text, and while it may not be an evening of high drama, it does live up to its subtitle: An Entertainment.

Shipwrecked! runs through this Sunday at South Coast Rep; Mauritius continues on Broadway through November 18th.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

Images of Shipwrecked! © by Henry diRocco; images of Mauritius © by Joan Marcus