The ins and outs of stamp collecting can strike an outside ear as so much esoteric jabbering about phosphor bands and dandy rolls. But put a price tag on the rarest of finds, "the Holy Grail of philately," and the subject becomes intensely interesting to all meaning characters and audience alike in the case of Mauritius, Theresa Rebeck's sharp, tension-filled, and solidly entertaining 2007 caper-play now enjoying an invigorating local premiere at the Magic Theatre under helm of artistic director Loretta Greco.
The play opens as an unassuming but determined young woman named Jackie (a terrific, fierce, yet vulnerable Zoë Winters) enters a somewhat sad-luck collector's shop its proud but lonely bookcases, high wooden reading table, and low-cushioned chairs (courtesy of scenic designer James Faerron) helping to project a librarial, if not quite funereal, atmosphere. Dour and feisty middle-aged proprietor Phil (a nicely understated Warren David Keith) is fussily refusing to even glance at the young neophyte's binder of stamps, an inheritance from her recently deceased mother.
Instead, Dennis (a vital James Wagner), the friendly and self-assured younger man lounging at the back of the room, comes forward to help with an appraisal. Almost immediately we note the change in his demeanor as something catches his eye. He follows the woman home surreptitiously, then contacts a foul-mouthed, vaguely disreputable associate named Sterling (a delightfully dark and deranged Rod Gnapp) whose initial disbelief soon turns to a determination bordering on frenzy.
These hyperarticulate, fast-thinking guy's guys getting their con on inevitably have one mentally swapping stamps for nickels, being rather reminiscent of Mamet's American Buffalo. But things soon pull in other directions, or at least elaborate on that model. Dennis and Sterling, with a reluctant Phil in tow, circle around Jackie like slavering wolves, but she's no easy prey. In the ensuing zigzagging, table-turning plot, we see her unfurl a coiled strength born of years of physical and psychological damage in a familial hell-hole a fate to which her seemingly more refined and unbearably upright half-sister Mary (Arwen Anderson, in another perfectly pitched turn) abandoned her years before, returning only now after their mother's death with a prior claim on the stamps via her fraternal grandfather, their original owner.
Rebeck's control of her themes including the fraught histories and "errors" that make both the stamps and the people interesting is strong and sure throughout, and Greco's direction is firmly paced and generally spot-on. Performances are all intensely focused and captivating. Tension mounts steadily and superbly, and the payoff, to employ caper jargon, is rewarding even down to the smiling, cherry-on-top ending which might have tasted a tad too sweet in another context but here feels justly earned. Among much else, Mauritius is something of a belated but welcome introduction to an established American playwright too rarely produced in the Bay Area.
Wed/10-Sat/13, 8 p.m.; Sun/14, 2:30 and 7 p.m., $25$45
Magic Theatre, Fort Mason Center, Bldg D, SF
(415) 441-8822, www.magictheatre.org