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TheatreWorks Has a Hit With Noirish ‘Mauritius’

By Jaime Ferris, Housatonic Times


Stamp collecting hardly seems gripping enough to be the basis of a play—unless, of course, we’re talking about the crown jewel of stamp-collecting at the heart of TheatreWorks New Milford’s latest offering, Theresa Rebeck’s spellbinding “Mauritius.”

Presented under the direction of theater veteran Sonnie Osborne, the play is quite smart and very funny at times, and reveals the very dark side of stamp collecting while also examining sibling relationships and the much larger issues of morals and values. While the playwright’s plot revolves around the imperfection of misprinted stamps from the island of Mauritius, what viewers really see are the flaws of the characters, who set the stage for this noirish thriller.

Making the story more interesting is the factual history of the stamps of Mauritius, a British colony off the southeast coast of Africa. Mauritius stamps became the Holy Grail of philately when the first stamps were commissioned and authorized in 1847 by the British colonial government. A local engraver prepared the design, which included a portrait of Queen Victoria, as well as the words “Post Office” along the edge. The stamps were supposed to say “Postage Paid.” Five hundred Mauritius Post Office stamps were printed and lost, making them hidden treasures.

In Ms. Rebeck’s “Mauritius,” a collection of valuable stamps, which allegedly include uncancelled one penny and the two penny Mauritius Post Office stamps, tear already estranged half-sisters apart, while also creating a story of intrigue, deceit and greed. How the stamps came into their possession and the truth about their authenticity unravel in two spellbinding acts.

Following the death of their mother after a long battle with cancer, half-sisters Jackie (Arielle Uppaluri) and older, estranged sister Mary (Tracy Hurd) inherit a book of rare stamps that could be worth millions. Jackie, having found the collection in her deceased mother’s apartment, takes the collection to a local shop for appraisal, where cranky owner and stamp expert Phillip (Mike Ritts) refuses to even look at it. Handsome young collector Dennis (Aaron Kaplan), who happens to be at the shop and who immediately takes a liking to Jackie, offers to look at the collection for her and discovers the Mauritius rarities. Dennis keeps the discovery from Phillip, and instead shares the information with his thuggish, stamp-loving friend Sterling (Viv Berger), who concocts a scam to acquire the stamps.

Back at the mother’s apartment, the sisters argue over the collection. Jackie, who cared for her mother, believes they are hers; Mary, whose grandfather was the original owner, believes they are hers. As secrets and cons unfold, so, too, do the errors of the past reflecting those of the present, revealing twists and turns in this tense, often funny and fast-paced game of cat and mouse. Each of these collectors is willing to go to any lengths to get the stamps and, soon enough, cons begin to overlap.

Mr. Ritts is wonderful as Phillip, the condescending expert who knows stamps like the back of his hand, but who is hard to read—perhaps as difficult to read as an authentic Mauritius Post Office—while Mr. Berger is perfectly sleazy as Sterling. It should be said that some viewers may be offended by his language, but it seems natural for this brutish collector.

Though she is not on stage long, Ms. Hurd commands attention as Mary, the half-sister who seems unaffected by her mother’s death. All she is concerned about are her grandfather’s stamps, and that they end up in her hands. She and Ms. Uppaluri have wonderful chemistry on stage, so much so that the audience truly believes they are squabbling sisters.

Mr. Kaplan as Dennis makes his first return to the TheatreWorks stage since his role as Jeff in “Lobby Hero” in 2006. And what a return it is—his Dennis is at once charming and scheming, a leather-jacketed sweetheart who pours on the charm.

Ms. Uppaluri, a senior at SUNY Purchase Acting Conservatory, makes her TheatreWorks debut as Jackie, and one can only hope this will be the first of many roles for the young actress. Throughout the production, it becomes clearer that the flaws that have made the stamps more valuable have also damaged these characters, an observation that is especially true for Jackie. Still, viewers can’t help but think she’ll be just fine.

Once again, Ms. Osborne commands accolades for her work as director, helping her cast find every despicable and redeeming nuance of their characters, while TheatreWorks president Glenn Couture created a fantastic set that makes great use of the theater’s turntable, allowing the set to change effortlessly with a 180-degree turn from the stamp shop and a coffee house, to an unkempt apartment.

As the summer heat rises, so, too, does the greed and intrigue of yet another hit at TheatreWorks in “Mauritius.” The theater certainly hasn’t made a mistake with this production.

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