It's been quite a while since a play has actually silenced the audience, leaving it clutching its candy wrappers instead of unwrapping them. Many scenes in Theresa Rebeck's Mauritius rivet our attention with a satisfying, edgy, quiet-before-the-storm feeling. The audience collectively inhales, waiting for what happens next. Rebeck knows what she's doing.
If I told you all this jittery apprehension happens because of two old postage stamps, you'd scoff, but these tiny slips of paper are none other than the exceedingly valuable One and Two Penny "Post Office" stamps, issued in 1847 from the island of Mauritius. Coming across these stamps is like spying a dodo — something else of value that came and went from Mauritius centuries ago. It's the printing flaws that ratchet up the worth and make them "interesting," as Dennis explains, "just like the flaws in people." Let's just say, as the characters so often do, that these stamps are worth a shitload of money. They are the Holy Grail of stamp collecting. The intriguing hook in Rebeck's supremely enjoyable play is that all five characters so desperately want them. Rebeck makes us want them, too.
The Alley Theatre,
615 Louisiana, 713-220-5700.
Through May 3. $21-$77
Underdog Jackie (Elizabeth Bunch), the play's gamine heroine, is in possession of them when we first meet her. A bit beat up, she's devoted the best years of her life to caring for her dying mother. What eases her psychological baggage is the gift of her grandfather's stamp collection, and she enters Philip's ratty stamp store to get an appraisal. Burned-out and battered, Philip (Jeffrey Bean) can't be bothered. He's seen enough, he spits out, of people expecting for instant wealth from their faded, pawed-over stamps. "I don't want to see," he shouts at her. Sadly, he means it.
In the corner of the shop, Dennis (Chris Hutchison) sits, sly as a spider. Assistant? friend? Hanger-on? He'll look at her collection — for free. Philip bitches in the background that Dennis doesn't know anything about appraising stamps, but his complaints hint at dark secrets and a history we're yet to know. Dennis flips through the pages perfunctorily, until he's stopped dead by the Post Offices. He's found the crown jewels, but he doesn't tell either of them, abruptly rushing Jackie out the door. The scene ends with a bang of neon lights and a cool jazz vamp from Josh Schmidt, conjuring a '50s black-and-white movie set in Manhattan. Kevin Rigdon's scenic design is equally minimalist cool.
Then there's Sterling (David Rainey), a businessman of shady repute who salivates when Dennis mentions the exotic stamps. Dangerous and full of menace, Sterling sees an easy mark in little lamb Jackie, who seems ripe for the big boys' shearing.
Who now appears in Jackie's life but half sister Mary (Kelly McAndrew), sent away to private school some 15 years ago. Mary never once helped out with her dying parents, and that the sisters don't get along is an understatement. Mary makes short work of what she wants from the estate. No surprise — it's that stamp collection. "Those are my stamps. Mom gave them to me," she declares with righteous finality, as if laying claim to foreign territory.
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All five end up in a battle of wits and brawn for the fabled postage stamps. We never know who's on whose side. The play pays distaff homage to David Mamet, whose classic American Buffalo has three scummy friends out to fleece an innocent of the rarest of nickels.
Rebeck's made her fortune writing for television (NYPD Blue and L.A. Law among others), and her small-scale drama is made of jigsaw puzzle plotting, surface character, and vague motivation that swirl through Mauritius like bad cable static. This doesn't make the play bad, but it doesn't make it very deep either.
However, the exceptional cast adds detailed subtext to the pencil-thin caricatures, abetted by Scott Schwartz's direction. Bunch is especially appealing as tough-as-nails Jackie, who longs to make a fresh start in life by selling those stamps. We root for the fearless and resourceful Jackie from the moment she walks into Philip's shop holding that stamp collection like a favorite child. Rainey's Sterling is perfect sleaze, always on edge and ready to blow at the least provocation. Hutchison's Dennis is both clueless and oozing familiarity — Jackie doesn't know whether to hit him or kiss him. McAndrew gives Mary an unflinching backbone and taste of the unsavory; while Bean's Philip, rumpled and discarded by life, is the picture of "a has-been for a reason," in Sterling's perfect putdown.
You'll never look at a postage stamp the same way again. Trust me.