Theresa Rebeck’s new Mauritius makes philately seem almost as exciting as the activity it sounds like. In its crackling world premiere by the Huntington Theatre Company (at the Calderwood Pavilion through November 12), the play marries Rebeck’s smart comic writing for the stage (Spike Heels, Bad Dates) to her experience penning sinister doings for the likes of NYPD Blue and Law & Order: Criminal Intent. And from the minute you enter the theater and take in the seedy office of P&J Philatelic Co., you think of David Mamet’s American Buffalo, in which a trio of petty thieves try to crack the mysteries of coin collecting. Rebeck substitutes the world of high- and low-rolling stamp fanciers and throws in a couple of wounded women. It’s as if Mamet’s never-seen Grace and Ruthie, revved up on past resentment and a Colombian coffee field’s worth of caffeine, had materialized.
ECHOES OF MAMET: But Theresa Rebeck’s interest in her damaged people sets Mauritius apart.
That is, of course, a blessing and a curse; Mauritius is a firecracker, but you have to accept that in its bang there are strong echoes, both rhythmic and thematic, of vintage Mamet. Mary, the squarer of the play’s disparate half-sisters locked in a fierce dispute over whether to market the stamp collection that turned up among their deceased mother’s possessions, opines that one cannot dispose of one’s inheritance for “mere money.” Whereupon sib Jackie explodes, “I’m sorry, did you just say ‘mere money’? Where do you think you are? This is America! . . . Money is what we crave here.” In the stamp shop of Mauritius, as in the junk shop of Buffalo, Mammon is god. And in the posturing cat-and-mouse games played at his altar, distrust and violence trump human connection.
As the play opens, a wired, logorrheic Jackie enters Philip’s dingy philatelist’s heaven seeking an appraisal of the stamp album of her half-sister’s grandfather. “Does this look like Antiques Roadshow to you?” the rumpled old expert barks. But Dennis, a swaggering hood and amateur stamp maven, takes a look — and in Rebecca Bayla Taichman’s tightly wound production, you don’t need words to see he spots something. Next thing you know, he’s in a diner trying to entice a very intense, possibly criminal collector into shelling out big bucks for the postal panacea of his dreams: one- and two-penny stamps incorrectly marked “post office” instead of “post paid” when they were issued in 1847 from the island of Mauritius. “It’s the errors that make them valuable,” Dennis later tells Jackie, adding, “That’s kind of my theory on people, too.” And it’s Rebeck’s interest in her damaged people, as well as in their attempts to con one another for precious bits of paper, that splits Mauritius from Mamet.
Without brandishing a weapon worse than a short fuse or bare hands, Taichman’s staging comes armed and dangerous. The album changes hands in what amounts to a swooping ballet, and even Eugene Lee’s heavy sets rumble on and off with attitude, to the brash, metallic beat of Martin Desjardins’s music. Marin Ireland’s hungry Jackie, individual words exploding out of her sentences, chaotic fantasies exploding out of a comic-book imagination, seems set to explode herself. But Laura Latreille’s Mary, accompanying every syrupy address with little kindergarten gestures (as if she were a talking mime), turns out to be the more ruthless. And when these two high-strung half-sibs get into a squealing match, it’s like a staccato concert. Robert Dorfman is a deceptively sleepy Philip. James Gale’s Sterling, a cockney thug in dandy’s clothing, is an intimidator who can be brought to an unseemly knee tremble by the touch of a stamp. And Michael Aronov’s deal-brokering Dennis is like a cross between the Fonz and Nureyev who in the end demonstrates the philatelic equivalent of having an ace up one’s sleeve.
ECHOES OF SHAKESPEARE: David Hare’s Stuff Happens meditates on the uses and abuses of power.
First Sir David Hare was hot under the collar about Iraq; now he’s hot under the collar that so few major American theaters are stepping up to his 2004 play about the Bush administration’s dogged run-up to the Iraq war, Stuff Happens, which is getting its Boston debut courtesy of tiny, feisty Zeitgeist Stage Company (at the Boston Center for the Arts through November 11). For an Equity company, the show, which requires 16 actors, would be expensive. Zeitgeist fields a primarily amateur cast under the direction of David J. Miller. And though the production starts too slowly and deliberately, it gains momentum along with Bush and his neo-con cronies’ push toward war.