Hobbies and pastimes come in many forms, and take on many peculiar names. Phillumenists collect matchbooks and other match-related ephemera. Conchologists collect shells. Pteridomania was the term for the Victorian-era craze for collecting ferns and anything with a fern motif.
In the case of the Penobscot Theatre Company’s latest production, Theresa Rebeck’s 2007 play “Mauritius,” the name of the game is philately — stamp collecting. That, along with a heady dose of greed and sibling rivalry, and some intensely florid, funny, profane language. We’ll get to that in a moment, though. For now, let’s stick with the stamps.
While anyone other than a philatelist might scoff at how a tiny scrap of paper could inspire such a passionate response, director Scott R.C. Levy has come to understand the seductive power of postage.
“One of the core questions at the center of the play is, ‘What makes something valuable?’” said Levy. “It’s not the physical worth of the materials, which is virtually nothing. It’s the story and history behind it. It’s incredible how a little piece of paper can contain so much. The history of entire empires are contained in stamps.”
In an age where e-mail has largely replaced the letter or postcard as the most widely used method of sending and receiving messages, stamps may seem increasingly like a thing of the past — a relic of the pre-digital age. But philately is alive and well, and “Mauritius,” which debuted on Broadway in fall 2007, takes place in a contemporary urban setting.
The name of the play refers to the incredibly valuable stamps that the character Jackie, played by Lacey Martin, has inherited from her recently deceased mother. Jackie is in possession of a one-penny orange and two-penny blue, two stamps issued in 1847 by the Indian Ocean island nation of Mauritius, at that time part of the British Empire.
“There is actual truth behind the story. These are real stamps. They’re referred to as the ‘crown jewels of philately,’” said Levy. “These two stamps actually sold at auction in 1993 for a combined $4 million. [Rebeck] got the idea for the play from that.”
Jackie takes her stamps to Phillip, the crotchety owner of a stamp store, played by Allen Adams. Phillip will not deign to look at her collection, but a fellow philatelist, the sly Dennis (New York actor Christopher Yeatts) does, whereupon he discovers her astounding stamps. Dennis takes the news to another stamp collector, the cutthroat Sterling (Dominick Varney), at which point all three are after Jackie’s stamps, along with Jackie’s sister-in-law, the self-absorbed Mary (Kristen Burkholder), who wants the stamps for sentimental reasons.
The four are driven by different kinds of motivations. For Phillip, it’s a kind of aesthetic and deeply personal love of stamps.
“All he really wants is to see it. He wants to look at it up close and personal. It’s been his life work,” said Adams. “More than anything, he’s driven by that need.”
Sterling and Dennis are also obsessed with stamps, but there’s more greed at stake than there is genuine love for the art of philately.
“Sterling is the same way [as Phillip], except he not only wants to see them — he wants to have them. He has an intense obsession with them,” said Varney. “They are his. As soon as he finds out about them, he’ll do anything to get them.”
Mary, the older sister, largely abandoned Jackie while their mother was dying, but now that the inheritance has come through, she wants a piece of the action. Especially the stamp collection, which originally belonged to her grandfather. Once she finds out how much it’s worth, though, she wants the money too. Unlike the other four, Jackie could care less about stamps. She’s trying to take care of her bills and her mother’s estate. That’s all.
“I’m at the center of it all,” said Martin. “And I don’t even really care about the stamps. I just want the money.”
The play is a zippy, foul-mouthed crime drama, with plenty of dark humor laced throughout. It’s most similar in tone and style to a very good primetime TV drama — something you’d see on HBO or Showtime.
“It’s very much a kind of comedy thriller. It’s a caper,” said Levy. “It’s got kind of a ‘Law & Order’ or ‘NYPD Blue’ feel, which are shows Rebeck wrote for. It’s a very fast-paced, funny, lively play. It’s written very naturally. By the end, you too will come to love stamps.”
“Mauritius” will start in previews at 7 p.m. April 29 and 30, and open at 8 p.m. Friday, May 1, at the Bangor Opera House. It runs through May 10. For a complete schedule of show times, visit www.penobscottheatre.org.