Did you know that Mauritius is a tiny island just east of Madagascar? Neither did I. That Mauritius was the sole, native home of the now extinct Dodo bird, and that Mauritius was only the fifth country ever to issue postage stamps, were also facts that had, until now, eluded me. While there is nary a mention of the noble Dodo in Theresa Rebeck’s Mauritius — an omission that both saddens and baffles me — the island’s place in philatelic history forms the core of this oddly inert drama.
When most people think of philately, or “stamp collecting,” as those of us who have never won a spelling be usually refer to it, their feelings are most likely ambivalent. The idea of coming across a rare stamp in your grandmother’s attic, a stamp worth hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars, appeals to the inner-capitalist in all of us. Yet by and large, non-philatelists judge stamp-collecting and its devotees to be less-than-thrilling at best and mind-numbingly boring at worst. Stamp collectors at cocktail parties are generally met with the same mild smile and quick disengagement as proselytizers of macramé or bullet reloading.
Mauritius, the play, engenders a very similar response. Though it contains a handful of humorous exchanges and some flashes of inspired performance, it is, at its heart, a drama about stamp collecting. Like philately itself, Mauritius offers the postal currency layman a brief, marginally interesting, but ultimately forgettable, diversion for a couple of hours. No more. No less.
When Jackie (Leah J. Watson) enters Philip’s (Sam Sandoe) stamp collecting shop with a collection she inherited from her recently deceased mother, Philip, a rather bitter and condescending man, can’t be bothered even to take a look at it. Dennis (Brian Landis Folkins), a struggling collector who, apparently, spends his days parked inside Philip’s establishment hoping and praying for some rare stamps to walk through the door, reviews Jackie’s collection and spies what could be one of the brightest stars of the philately firmament.
Dennis doesn’t tip his hand to either Philip or Jackie, but instead takes his hunch to Sterling ( Jim Hunt), a wealthy, semi-legitimate businessman and collector who starts salivating like Pavlov’s dog at bell time over the possibility of obtaining the Holy Grail of postage stamps. The two men must overcome some sordid history to recruit the expert Philip for their plan to purchase Jackie’s collection at a fire-sale price. Meanwhile, Jackie faces her own obstacle to financial independence in the form of her half-sister Mary (Lindsey Pierce), who stubbornly claims sole ownership of the stamps.
Is all of this somewhat diverting?
Certainly. Is it a nail-biting, goose-flesh-inducing rollercoaster of unexpected revelations and unforeseen double crosses? Not nearly. Though Jackie is the most central character, Dennis is truly the fulcrum of the play. Jackie and Mary’s wants, as well as Sterling and Philip’s needs, all pass through Dennis as variously negotiator, partner, friend and foil. Folkins deserves credit for the most nuanced and recognizably human performance in Mauritius. Veterans Sandoe and Hunt each have moments of genius, despite the one-note nature of their characters, and Watson maintains an appropriately guarded and furious demeanor throughout.
Even if the cast had done the best work of their lives, Mauritius would still suffer from Rebeck’s unimaginative plotting and Mamet-lite dialogue. As long as it fits the character and setting, I always appreciate when a playwright embraces profanity. That said, having middle-aged men use the phrase “fuck you” as an interrogative, a declaration and semantically null filler — often over the course of one exchange — does not, in and of itself, confirm gravitas or even validity on the proceedings.
Mauritius, Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company’s sixth season opener, is a play about stamp collecting. Really, what more needs to be said? (Yes, of course, virtually any subject can be made to compel; this play just doesn’t manage it.) Mauritius features four very angry people and one opportunist, all aggressively looking after their own best interests. Profanity is hurled along with a few punches, but the end result will, like philately, appeal only to a select few.
On the Bill:
Mauritius plays through Oct. 29 at the Dairy Center for the Arts. Tickets are $19-$24. For tickets or information, call 303-444-7328 or visit www.boulderensembletheatre.org.