By Mary Cummings
Photos by Tom Kochie
"Mauritius", the play that opens tonight in a Hampton Theatre Company production, has been facetiously described as an exposé of the dark underside of philately.
The joke is in the apparently absurd assumption that the hobby of geezers and geeks might have something to offer con men and grifters. Yet, the fact is that this fast-paced drama full of intrigue and foul play is actually all about a collection of postage stamps and the corrupting effect it has on some people who are desperate to own it.
The prize each of the play’s five characters is frantic to win is a collection that may-or may not-include stamps regarded by collectors as the "crown jewels" of philately: spectacularly valuable misprinted stamps from the island of Mauritius. In the cutthroat battle to own them, sister is pitted against sister and both are beset by unsavory characters whose interest in the stamps ranges from dark obsession to unalloyed avarice.
Written by Theresa Rebeck, who made her bones as a scriptwriter for TV crime dramas like "Law & Order", and who brought "Mauritius" to the Broadway stage in 2007, the play has been called Mamet-like by some who see similarities between Ms. Rebeck’s edgy dialogue and the choppy, unpolished language found in Mamet plays like "American Buffalo" and "Glengarry Glen Ross". Others, like critic Elyse Summer, have pointed out that Ms. Rebeck has been writing her own brand of "consistently smart and often very funny" dialogue for years.
While agreeing that the play has "lots of humorous situations", Bob Kaplan, who is directing "Mauritius" for HTC, said he thought it would be misleading to call it a comedy. Its appeal to audiences, he suggested in a phone interview, is deeper and springs from the questions it raises: "Who is telling the truth? What is the truth? Are the stamps the real deal or counterfeit? Which sister, in fact, has true ownership of the stamps?"
At the center of the drama is Jackie (Joanna Howard), the first to claim ownership of the stamp album found in her recently deceased mother’s apartment. She brings it to the dusty offices of P&J Philatelic Co. to get an appraisal from Philip, a charmless and somewhat seedy though beguilingly intelligent stamp dealer played by Christopher Linn.
Though Philip’s first reaction is to be rudely dismissive of Jackie and her stamps, Dennis (Eric Clavell), a handsome young con man who happens to be in the stamp shop, sniffs an opportunity and shows great interest in both the girl and her stamps and offers to help. (Some indication of where his real interests lie comes later, when he and Sterling, a rich but thuggish collector played by Phil Eberhardt, hatch a scam to gain control of the stamps.)
It remains only for Jackie’s uptight half-sister Mary to enter the ring, contending that the stamps are rightfully hers since the album was her grandfather’s, not Jackie’s.
In his review of "Mauritius" for The New York Times, Ben Brantley praised Ms. Rebeck’s skill in holding an audience’s attention with the "teasing ambiguity" that he asserted is key in a play like "Mauritius."
Mr. Kaplan agreed, noting that a central question among the many raised by the play-one that audiences will constantly be asking themselves-is, "Who should I believe?"
"She keeps the audience guessing," he said of the playwright. "They may be rooting for one character and then change directions as information dribbles out."
It takes skilled actors to pull that off, of course, and Mr. Kaplan pronounced himself extremely pleased with the HTC cast.
"They are able to bring out the nuances of the characters," he said. "The playwright has filled each sentence and dialogue with all sorts of hints that show up later and the actors are very good at building that into their characters naturally."
While the cast includes two newcomers to HTC-Anna Hemphill as Mary and Eric Clavell as Dennis—all are seasoned actors. In a phone conversation, Joanna Howard described her character, Jackie, as a "desperate woman" who looks upon the stamps as her "last hope."
For the 26-year-old Westhampton native, who has already had considerable success in her acting career and is familiar to many as one-third of the singing Howard sisters, playing a young woman "at the end of her rope" sounds like a stretch. But after 20 years on the stage (she started at 6) including work as a small child in the first production of "Les Miserables," Ms. Howard sounded unfazed by the prospect.
"You have to force yourself to go to those places in yourself," she said of the challenge, which clearly she welcomes.
If playing a bad guy like the rich but unscrupulous Sterling is a stretch for a decent fellow like Phil Eberhardt, it is clearly a challenge that he, too, relishes.
"Playing the villain is a lot of fun," he said. "There’s a lot of physical activity, fight sequences and little bursts of violence."
Making the fisticuffs look realistic without getting hurt is not always easy, Mr. Eberhardt acknowledged, but as the last week of rehearsals closed in, he was in agreement with Mr. Kaplan’s assertion that the cast had conquered the hard parts and was heading toward opening night in "very good shape."