by Theresa Rebeck
Oldcastle Theatre Company, Bennington
Closes August 6
Richard Howe as Phillip
Peter Langstaff as Sterling
Gabriel Vaughan as Dennis
Meredith Meurs as Jackie
Doria Bramante as Mary
Directed by Eric Peterson
Lights – David Groupe
Sound Design/Projections – Cory Wheat
Costume and Set Design Ursula McCarty and Roy Hamlin
You have only two days left to see Theresa Rebeck’s philatelic thriller at the Oldcastle Theatre Company in Bennington. By all means drop any other plans you may have and treat yourself to a show that is both gripping and tartly amusing, with its sour, disillusioned view of sibling relationships and human behavior inspired by desirable objects. There is some dreaming about travel to exotic places, but the characters in this play are animated by two thumbnail-sized pieces of paper, one denominated at one pence and the other at two pence, when they were issued by the island of Mauritius, then a British possession, in 1847. They were the first Imperial stamps printed outside England. Copied after the British home issue of 1841, they show Queen Victoria in profile. The crudeness of the engraving gives them considerable charm, but it is their rarity which gives them their extremely high value. You will learn further details in the play, and Theresa Rebeck is deft at presenting the necessary background, without making it sound artificial. After all, this is the sort of stuff stamp collectors love to talk about.
Theresa Rebeck’s exciting and sharply observed play is about both money, on the one hand, and the collector’s passion on the other. Jackie walks into a philatelic shop and asks the owner, Phil, to evaluate a stamp album she says she has inherited, especially two stamps in particular. The owner of a comic book store she frequents advised her to consult with an expert. Phil dismisses her supposedly because of the contempt he has for ignorant people who inherit or casually come on stamps and seek an easy solution in consulting him. But there may be some method in his crustiness. Dennis, presumably a collector, is hanging around Phil’s shop, overhears the conversation, and gallantly volunteers to look at the album himself. He recognizes the Mauritian treasures and sees an easy mark in Jackie, “who reads comic books, after all.” (I wondered if she wouldn’t turn out to be a collector of rare comics.) Dennis plans to take advantage of her ignorance in arranging a deal with Sterling, an ambitious, wealthy collector he knows. Meanwhile, Jackie’s half-sister, Mary, appears on the scene.
The women share a common mother, who has just died under difficult circumstances, which remain a mystery. Jackie found the stamp collection in her possession. Mary, on the other hand, knows all about the collection and the Mauritian pair. The collection was formed by her grandfather, and Mary learned all about it on his lap as a child. She grew up with him taking the place of her father, and she has an emotional, as well as an intellectual connection to his stamps. She considers the collection hers by right. The sisters argue over which of them has the rightful claim to the album. As much as Mary seems to be on the side of the angels, we can’t rule out a financial motivation under her brave surface. Jackie is open about it, and she wins our sympathy to some degree because of the hardship, financial and otherwise she has gone through in the events leading up to her mother’s death. Meanwhile she has gotten through to Phil and has benefitted from his advice. By the time she meets with Sterling, a man who has made his fortune in various suspect ways, including arms dealing, Jackie is well-informed and tough. We never learn how much money Sterling has brought with him in a suitcase, but Jackie forces him to add more to it, presumably in bills of large denomination, before she surrenders the stamps. At that point Mary arrives, insisting on her claims, and queering the deal by asserting authoritatively that the Mauritius stamps are forgeries. It turns out that she is lying, of course. At the end, each sister walks away with something, one with the collection, the other with Dennis, an acquisition of more dubious value than the stamps.
There is no end to what one can observe in human behavior in the presence of things of high monetary value and a legendary aura—often it is hard to say which comes first. Experts like Phil, Dennis, and Sterling like to make claims to rationality, since the rhetoric of stamp collecting depends on numerous seemingly rational rules, but their actions show nothing of the sort. And there is more to everyone’s words and actions than meets the eye, including the sisters. Phil sends the message that if you want his stamps, you have to put up with the humiliation he has to offer, Dennis is ingratiating, flirtatious, and not a little slimy, as he arranges deals. Sterling wields power with a suitcase full of banknotes. Beneath Jackie’s forthright determination and gumption, there may be a hint of something shifty. She finds something attractive in Dennis, after all. And what really motivates Mary? Is she as high-minded as she seems? It’s hard to take sides in this. But, there’s no reason to doubt the facts in her claim, and she has her right to the collection.
There is an element of dark comedy in this, but director Eric Petersen chose not to make much of it. He decided, rather, to play it straight in this production, and it worked. The ambiguity of the situation created by these five characters can in this way act as a magnet on our attention and fascinate us—along with the legend of the two stamps, created on an outpost of the British Empire in the middle of the Indian Ocean.
Richard Howe was a joy to watch as Phil, the cranky stamp dealer. His acidic rudeness is both self-expression and a technique in manipulating customers. Peter Langstaff gave us a Sterling we might on the streets of Monte Carlo or Geneva. He doesn’t look all that rich, but he can afford the luxury of ruthlessness. Gabriel Vaughan was a crafty Dennis who can think ahead and stick to the plans he has made for himself and his victims. He is not hard to see through, which makes the guarded, ironic trust he has aroused in Jackie all the more intriguing. Meredith Meurs was especially effective in playing Jackie’s development. Naive and at sea at first in the hermetic world of philately, she proves a quick study, and her common sense powers her enterprising adaptability. There is a dark side to Jackie as well, which Ms. Meurs did not develop to the same extent. Doria Bramante played a confident, edgy Mary, whose passionate conviction caught fire in its most intense moments. One could sense the difference in education between the half-sisters in every utterance and gesture. As Ms. Bramante so colorfully plays her, Mary is as much the protagonist as Jackie, and Mauritius comes close(at least it’s worth considering this) to being one of those rare American plays in which all the characters are of equal importance. The play would collapse, if you took any of them out. And Mauritius is all about character.