You may have cast them a glance and wondered how they stay in business: those drab little holes-in-the-wall that specialize in comics or vinyl records, used books or musical instruments, coins or ceramic-somethings.
From the sidewalk, it's clear they're not in business to indulge your idle curiosity. They're more like halfway houses for souls possessed, the sort of folk Nick Hornby summed up in High Fidelity — "They're as close to being mad as makes no difference." And in Theresa Rebeck's dark comedy Mauritius, they are five quirky misfits brought together by a pair of priceless postage stamps.
This Village Playhouse production, directed by Paul Whitty, opens on the dingy interior of a stamp shop owned by Phillip (Nat Jones).
The set itself deserves mention — a clever design that might be a Lemony Snicket pop-up book. In dull browns and dim lighting, it captures the wonderfully dreary inertia of the shop's singular obsessions. Dennis (William Haden) is the loiterer-in-residence and proof that any bright spot in their lives will have to fight its way to the surface. That battle begins when young Jackie (Katie Huard) wanders in clutching a stamp collection that Phillip can't be bothered to evaluate. It's Dennis who steps up and discovers the hidden treasure in that binder. And it's Dennis who'll jump to the head of the class if he can broker a deal between Jackie and a wolf named Sterling (Dave Reinwald). Perhaps the only thing standing in the way of the score of a lifetime is Jackie's half-sister Mary (Keely Enright). Having escaped her nightmarish family years ago and only returned for her mother's funeral, Mary believes the stamps belong to her.
Playwright Rebeck gives her otherwise listless characters plenty of room for bad judgement and even worse behavior, while the play hits just enough of a nerdy philatelic note to reveal the depth of their hidden passions.
Nat Jones is utterly convincing as the stamp dealer who has been betrayed by life on a fairly regular basis and by Sterling in a long ago dust-up that is too painful for Phillip to detail even when Dennis presses him to authenticate the stamps he hopes Sterling can be persuaded to buy. It won't take much persuasion. Reinwald's Sterling is the very model of a shady customer, played as an often mirthless egoist keen on the thrill of acquisition. Reinwald's best moment on stage finds him fantasizing about touching the prized stamps: objects of desire so sublime they inspire him to transcendent eloquence. Even so, to him, people like Jackie are a means to an end, easy prey.
But Huard's Jackie, once negotiations begin, proves her mettle. Huard manages to create a character who is emotionally blunted by her abusive upbringing and yet alive and hopeful. In a scene with Dennis, she describes her love of the Elfquest comic books. She's giddy as a little girl when she does, but then she's suddenly brought up short by having revealed so much vulnerability. It's a beautiful sequence.
William Haden once again demonstrates his talent with slick, quick-witted, verbal characters. He's equally persuasive portraying Dennis' predatory instincts and his character's dusty collection of selfless virtues. Haden is charming enough to make you want to credit his character with finer instincts than he may, in fact, possess.
In all this, Jackie's sister Mary is the odd one out — she has fewer lines and, like some elected officials, seems to exist mostly to drag her heels, insist on being heard, and impede everyone else from moving forward. Enright gives her just enough grit to be an obstruction and just enough guile and self-centeredness to make her character an amusing blight on the proceedings.
Like those grungy little shops, Mauritius may appear unwilling to indulge your idle curiosity, but at heart, it's inviting.