MAPLEWOOD, NJ - For the past couple of weeks, Theresa Rebeck’s play Mauritius (2007) has enjoyed a run at Maplewood’s Burgdorff Cultural Center. Mauritius is the latest production by The Strollers, a troupe that has brought inspired community theater to local audiences since 1932. Directed by Strollers veteran Glen Albright, Mauritius takes some potentially dull topics—stamp collecting, small-town life—and transforms them into the basis of outlandish, suspenseful comedy.
The play’s title refers to one of the most valuable postage stamps in the world. In 1847, the British colony of Mauritius issued a series of defective one- and two-penny stamps. Each stamp was meant to read “Post Paid;” instead, the words “Post Office” appear. Today, each of the surviving Mauritius “Post Office” stamps is valued at several million dollars.
Mauritius itself focuses on Jackie (Dena Daniel), a woman with a disappointing past who wants to start a new life. While rummaging through old family belongings, Jackie finds a stamp collection that includes the coveted “Post Office” misprints. With the help of a smooth-talking stamp specialist named Dennis (Travis Garcia), Jackie decides to sell the collection to a wealthy businessman named Sterling (Christopher C. Gibbs). But difficulties abound. First, Jackie’s half-sister Mary (Cynthia S. Ross) has a claim to the collection, which belonged to her beloved grandfather. Second, Dennis’s cryptic colleague Philip (Jim Coe) seems to have plans of his own. And third, Sterling is a loose cannon—a “stamp gangster,” as one audience member aptly called him during intermission.
Though the first act offers a few big altercations (and, on Sterling’s part, a heavy dose of profanity), the second act of Mauritius is more intense and, in a good way, more uncomfortable. Jackie, Dennis, and Sterling gather in Phil’s shop to haggle over the stamp, the money, and who walks away with what. I don’t want to spoil anything, but make sure you’re on your guard; there’s a plot twist at almost every turn.
As Rebeck’s play progresses, you may feel an increasing déjà vu. This isn’t entirely a bad thing; in fact, it’s probably a sign that you know your pop culture. When Mauritius first hit theaters, leading critics compared it to David Mamet’s play American Buffalo (1975)—another story about a high-profile collector’s item and the low-profile shenanigans that surround it. But Mauritius also put me in mind of David Auburn’s drama Proof (2000). Both have many of the same ingredients: a troubled female lead, an overbearing sister, and a much-wanted item of uncertain worth. Is Rebeck using all this in new ways, or just following a tried and tired recipe?
Though Mauritius isn’t a bracingly original show, it isn’t by any means an ill-constructed or (even worse?) a boring work of theater. Rebeck gives you a lot to like and a lot to hate about each of her characters. And deciding whose side you are on, moment to moment, is one of the most interesting parts of watching Mauritius.
It takes a little while for the Strollers’ cast to find their stride with this material, but once they do, the onstage dynamic that they establish is thoroughly, dynamically entertaining. Jackie may have millions of dollars at stake, but her negotiations and tribulations take place in Phil’s wonderfully dingy store (designed by Bob Coe). Again, mixing loads of cash with beat-up settings is a pop culture staple. (Think Jackie Brown; think Slumdog Millionaire; think Breaking Bad.) But precedents shouldn’t be too big of a deal when you’re having this much fun.