Stamp collecting isn't exactly trendy, and a play about stamp collecting doesn't seem particularly gripping, in theory. But when the story also includes a true crime feel and comes from the pen of playwright and proven mystery writer Theresa Rebeck, things get interesting. The latest selection in the Blackfriars season, "Mauritius," which runs through April 7, is a story about an inherited book of stamps.
The plot follows half-sisters Jackie (Fiona Criddle) and Mary (Stephanie Sheak), whose mother has just died. Jackie, attempting to pay off a debt, takes an old stamp book she found to noted philatelist and appraiser Philip (Jeff Siuda) for consultation, but when he refuses to look, it's amateur collector Dennis (Danny Hoskins) who helps her out. There's just one catch: the stamp book actually belonged to Mary's paternal grandfather. So, who does it belong to now? The next two-and-a-half hours, including one 15-minute intermission, are a whirlwind of intrigue, betrayal and cons when a set inside the book is revealed to be from the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius and among the rarest stamps in the world. As each character strives to reap the valuable rewards, the worst of human nature is revealed.
"Mauritius" opened on Broadway in 2007, and was Rebeck's first to move to Broadway (she is also a novelist and screenwriter for TV and film). It hasn't been widely performed since then. The Blackfriars production features a small cast of five, directed by the intuitive Brian Coughlin, who also designed the elaborate, modern day set that doubles as Phil's office, a coffee shop, and Jackie's apartment.
In the role of Jackie is Fiona Criddle, a newcomer to the Blackfriars stage. She's believable, even likeable as the younger, flighty sister who conceals her sharp wit like a weapon -- but it did take her a few scenes to warm up to the feistiness the role demands. Blackfriars Artistic Director Danny Hoskins drives much of the show's mysterious momentum as Dennis, the amateur stamp collector who is the first to look at Jackie's stamp book. Hoskins is onstage roughly once per season in a suitable role, and this was certainly the right choice for 2019.
Returning to the Blackfriars stage for the third time this season is J. Simmons. After captivating performances in "Anna in the Tropics" and "Rocky Horror Picture Show" last fall, Simmons is back to transfix the audience with his portrayal of Sterling, a volatile, stamp-obsessed, trust fund-toting businessman. Rounding out the cast are Stephanie Sheak in an impressive role as the self-absorbed older sister Mary; and Jeff Siuda as Philip, who Siuda depicts as both detestable and a character some may feel empathetic toward. Collectively, the cast melds well and creates a dynamic of suspense and constant dialogue.
The set is modern, but props master John Engel includes attention to detail that creates visual interest and a sense of realism, from crocheted doilies on Jackie's couch to an empty printer box and disheveled papers stacked atop a filing cabinet in Phil's office. Fight choreography by Katelyn Cantu proves to be both innovative and invaluable for this show, which has a few intense moments.
"Mauritius" is the kind of show rooted in a topic so niche that few people know about it walking in to the theater -- and no one can stop thinking about it as they walk out.