Prepare to be amazed by the dazzling, dangerous world of stamp collecting.
No, don’t stop reading. It’s really interesting, honest. Just ask Keely Enright, producing artistic director of the Village Playhouse.
“Mauritius sounded really deadly dull when we thought about it on the first take,” says Enright, who is also starring in the play. “But we were also intrigued because the subject matter seemed so benign. How could [playwright Theresa Rebeck] make a sexy thriller out of it?”
The initially innocuous story of two sisters inheriting a stamp collection takes a sinister turn when some rare stamps are taken to a store for evaluation. When Philip the store owner (played by Nat Jones) learns that they may have unpostmarked, misprinted, ultra-rare African stamps, he makes a major play for them — as do two other collectors, Dennis (William Haden) and Sterling (Dave Reinwald).
The sisters have their own squabble to settle. Jackie (Katie Huard) finds the stamps, but her elder half-sibling Mary (Enright) lays claim to them since they belonged to her grandfather. A series of mysteries pile up in a show that’s not so much a “whodunit” as a “whose is it?” The audience has to figure out who the stamps belong to, as well as their provenance and authenticity, and who the con artists are and what the con is.
This isn’t the first Rebeck play that Enright has had her eye on producing. A couple of years back she wanted to stage the one-woman Bad Dates, but dropped the idea when it was coincidentally selected by Charleston Stage. Mauritius provides a second chance for the company to revel in Rebeck’s funny, female-centered writing. “She’s a fantastic writer,” says Dave Reinwald, who is also the Playhouse’s managing director. “Mauritius has been fun to do and challenging. We’ve never done anything similar to this.”
“It’s really fascinating how it unfolds,” says Enright. “It has this Maltese Falcon feeling.” Along with talented director Paul Whitty, Enright is trying to honor the “vintage vibe” of the play — picture a female Humphrey Bogart cracking modern quips with a sprinkling of salty words — while keeping its present-day setting.
The New Yorker called Rebeck’s tale of grieving and grifting “David Mamet for girls” with particular reference to American Buffalo, Mamet’s tale of a valuable coin that brings out people’s greed. Rebeck’s work shares the same attention to cadence, unscrupulousness, and colorful language (not surprisingly, this one is recommended for ages 14 and up).
“I adore Mamet, what he does on the page and what happens on the stage,” says Enright, who has produced a few of his plays. “But I know some people who won’t even come in the door if they know we’re doing his work.” Mauritius is something different, she believes, because of its female perspective.
The stamp angle also sets this show apart from the rest of Enright’s oeuvre. “The biggest takeaway for us as actors,” she says, “is that we’ve become fascinated with the beauty and history of stamps and what they represent.” None of the cast had a philatelic background, and they couldn’t find a stamp store in town either. Wardrobe and prop mistress Julie Ziff had to go to New York to find the necessary trappings.
Enright says, “You will come away with a new understanding and appreciation for their world.”
Stamp fan or not, there are themes in the play that will resonate with anyone in the audience. The characters all have different needs and desires, but Jackie and Mary embody the play’s central questions. Where do you choose to live, the past or the present? Is your personal history more important than the here and now, the requirements of the moment? What’s more important — a family heirloom or cash in the bank?
Mauritius merges family feuds, dodgy deals, and collecting mania to tell an entertaining story. Rebeck is a playwright whose work stands or falls on the quality of the cast, and the Playhouse’s regular actors have already proven themselves capable of making a script sound fresh. The subject matter is a tougher sell, so it remains to be seen whether they can get their audience stuck on stamps.