Echo Theatre’s Mauritius makes harrowing suspense out of postage stamps; while Dallas Children's Theater monkeys around with Junie B. Jones

Enjoy a tasty plot twist in your drama? With Mauritius, running one more weekend in a crisp little production by Echo Theatre at the Bath House, playwright Theresa Rebeck serves up a two-act mystery so yummy you could eat it for dinner. Check out her recipe for suspense:

Problem: Jackie (Leslie Patrick), young, troubled and broke, retrieves a small stamp collection from the detritus left by her recently deceased mother. A neighborhood philatelist, Philip (Brian Witkowicz), rudely dismisses her without a glance at the stamps. In the same shop, Dennis (David Meglino), an interested stranger in a cool leather jacket, offers to look at it. On a single page, he spies two rare and valuable pieces: the 1847 Island of Mauritius "Post Office" Penny Orange and the Two-Pence Blue. He doesn't let on to Jackie what she has.

Complication: A borderline psycho named Sterling (Tony Martin, in a sharp and menacing performance) is a rabid collector determined to possess those stamps. He conspires with Dennis to get them, and with the help (we think) of the inscrutable Philip, the men decide to con Jackie out of her collection for a fraction of its actual worth.

Twist: Jackie's older half-sister, Mary (Brandi Andrade), believes she is the legal owner of the stamps because they belonged to her grandfather to whom Jackie wasn't related. Mary stumbles into the deal between Jackie and the men and tries to convince them all that the Mauritius stamps are counterfeit and therefore worthless.

Solution: Almost everyone gets what they want. Rebeck delivers a neat and satisfying conclusion, complete with double backflip on the plot. Even if it does feel a little ersatz Mamet (in his 1975 play American Buffalo, three men obsess over a rare coin collection), it's still a dandy who'll-do-it with the well-timed act-break cliffhangers of a slick TV crime show.

Rebeck hasn't always been so deft with her plotting. Previous plays, including comedy monologue Bad Dates, done at Dallas Theater Center in 2005, and the co-written Pulitzer finalist Omnium Gatherum, about a dinner party in hell, have been faulted by critics for their lack of strong storylines. But the playwright has scripted for NYPD Blue, Law & Order and other cop dramas. She's used what she learned from the templates of those series, adding perhaps a soupcon of The Maltese Falcon, all through Mauritius.

The boring factual stuff is laid out right away to bring the un-philatelically minded up to speed on the value of rare and precious stamps; the two mentioned in the play really are worth millions. Rebeck also sprinkles in false leads and toothsome intrigues, many left unexplained or unresolved at the end. That dead mother, for instance, may have wreaked some bad juju on Jackie that the girl is carrying over toward the pushy half-sister. Or maybe Jackie's a junkie, or a compulsive gambler behind on the vig with a loan shark. We never really know. Whatever she is, she's a shaky mess, and she makes it clear to stolid Mary as they physically fight over the stamps that getting quick cash, lots of it, is the answer to her immediate problems. "There is damage there. Damage," Dennis says of Jackie as the men plot to rip her off. "This is a desperate person."

Echo Theatre director Terri Ferguson does fine work with all this in her production, giving the staging a gritty, film-noirish texture. On bookcase-lined scenery by Kateri Cole that suggests both a shop stacked with dusty collectibles and the dead mom's cluttered apartment, the cast glides seamlessly from scene to scene.

The strong directing and the dark humor in the script bring out the best in Echo's ensemble. Leslie Patrick vibrates with tension as Jackie, but underneath her jitters is a street-smart little cookie whose intelligence the con men vastly underestimate. As leather-wearing Dennis, David Meglino slowly reveals the layers of his complicated character. He's sexy-warm one minute, creepy-cold the next. Will he be Jackie's mentor or tormentor?

Seems like only a few years ago that Brian Witkowicz was playing teenagers onstage at Dallas Children's Theater. Now he's graying at the temples (or maybe that's good makeup) and effecting a world-weary air. As Philip, the stamp expert, he keeps the audience guessing whose side of the con game he's really on.

Tony Martin, so often cast in comedies, bites into his long speeches as the psycho Sterling like a gourmand who's hit sand in a mouthful of raw oyster. You can feel his displeasure with his conspirators and their mark as he spits out his words.

Brandi Andrade takes her one-note role as Mary and manages to make many repetitions of the line "They are not your stamps to sell" different every time.

Who knew two hours of talk about two obscure slips of paper could be so...enveloping? Sticking to a first-class story structure for the delicious Mauritius, Rebeck proves she's got the plotting thing licked.

It's always exciting to find a talented newcomer on the Dallas theater scene. You don't have to be 5 years old to connect with the joyful performance of Jessica Jain, playing the title role in the feel-good musical comedy Junie B. Jones and a Little Monkey Business, the 26th season opener, and Jain's local theater debut, at Dallas Children's Theater. Jain, a native of Calgary, Alberta, and a graduate of the University of Calgary, is all arms, legs and beaming smiles as Junie, a precocious kindergartner who lives in a me-centered world where grown-ups utter confusing words.

Adapted by composer-writer Joan Cushing from the popular series of chapter books by Barbara Park, Junie B. Jones finds the little girl and her friends, That Grace (Ashley S. Duplechain), Lucille (Lisa Schreiner), William (Karl Schaeffer) and Meanie Jim (Chad Patrick Smith), worrying over their first "show and tell" presentation. When her grandmother (Deborah Brown) declares that Junie's just-born baby brother is "the cutest little monkey you've ever seen," Junie takes it literally and announces to her class that she has a baby monkey for a sibling.

The theme of misunderstood metaphors and baffling idioms elicits big laughs from the peanut gallery at this show. "Kindergarten is where you go to make new friends and not watch TV," Junie declares. Also, "'We'll see' is another word for 'no.'" They go nuts at that.

Director-choreographer Nancy Schaeffer and her designers (scenic designer Randel Wright, lighting expert Linda Blase, costumer Leila Heise) paint the three connected stages in the Paul Baker Theater at the Rosewood Center for Family Arts with crayon-hued colors, big movement, and a pacing of images and action perfectly attuned to kid rhythms.

After each performance, the cast hits the lobby still in character to sign autographs and snap a pic with every child who wants one. At the first Saturday matinee, Miss Jain was mobbed like a rock star. Looks like she's already building a fan base.

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner

Latest Stories