What, exactly, is a “Mauritius”?
• It’s an island off the cost of Africa, not far from Madagascar.
• It’s a country that began issuing British colonial postage stamps in 1847 – earlier than most other countries – and now those stamps are the most valuable in the world.
• It’s the name of a 2007 Broadway play by Theresa Rebeck about stamp-collecting con men, which gets its Spokane premiere at Interplayers Professional Theatre tonight.
The phrase “stamp-collecting con men” seems unlikely until you realize that a pair of Mauritian stamps recently sold for $4 million. So if you toss two (seemingly) naïve sisters into a den of greedy, unscrupulous collectors, you’ve got yourself a noir-ish suspense plot.
That’s what Rebeck, a veteran writer of TV cop dramas such as “NYPD Blue,” did with “Mauritius.” It’s a combination of comedy and “suspenser,” to use the old-fashioned theater term, which has critics comparing it to the early plays and films of David Mamet.
New York Times critic Ben Brantley, while not entirely captured by the play, called it “head and shoulders above” most recent Broadway suspensers.
The set-up goes like this: Two half-sisters are cleaning out grandpa’s attic when they discover a dusty old stamp collection. They take it in to a philately shop where they meet the shop’s haughty owner, a conniving hanger-on and a rich, shady collector.
From there the plot moves “quickly and fluidly,” according to Brantley.
“It unfolds in a series of Darwinian power shifts and with staccato dialogue in which it’s impossible to tell who has the upper hand or who’s scamming whom,” wrote Brantley, of the Broadway premiere.
TheaterMania critic Sandy McDonald, writing about its 2006 Boston premiere, called it a “five-way tug-of-war.” Some of these people are teaming up on a con – but which people?
Patrick Treadway, who is directing the Interplayers version, has a different perspective on the story. He isn’t convinced that any of the characters are running a premeditated con.
“The play is really about the desperation of these people and what these stamps mean to them,” Treadway said. “The game-playing and positioning? So much of it is off the cuff.”
It had only a brief Broadway run – 61 performances – but it snagged a Tony nomination for actor Bobby Cannavale (“Third Watch,” “Will & Grace”).
At Interplayers, Treadway directs Bethany Hart, Jason Young, Damon Abdallah, Brian Edwards and Sarah Denison.
The comparisons with Mamet are unavoidable, since one of Mamet’s early hits, “American Buffalo,” was about con men grappling over a coin collection. And Interplayers warns that this play also contains some Mamet-like “adult language and situations.”
Yet Treadway is convinced that Rebeck is “deeper than Mamet” and has plenty to say about subjects like inheritance and greed. Rebeck is on a roll right now with a new hit TV series, “Smash” (she’s the creator and executive producer), and the Broadway hit “Seminar,” starring Alan Rickman.
According to McDonald, “Mauritius” ends with a “send-them-home-smiling 11th-hour coup.” Yet Treadway hopes that people will be sent home with something else. He believes the play is loaded with what he calls “time bombs” – insights and revelations that will suddenly burst into your head the next day at the grocery store.