Not the most promising premise in the playwriting handbook for a Broadway-sized dust-up, you must be thinking, but Theresa Rebeck carries this to operatic heights, fanned admittedly by the untold fortune these little scraps of paper could bring a person.
The stage is thus set for a King of the Mountain contest, peopled with a very quirky quintet of characters, and complicated by some slippery sleight of hand in the second act.
Two half-sisters, estranged to the point of fisticuffs (Alison Pill and Katie Finneran), are turned loose on three conmen falling all over themselves and the women to come out on top — a stingy-spirited stamp expert (Dylan Baker), a deep-pocketed psychopath who pours lovingly over the goods on display like Sydney Greenstreet inspecting The Maltese Falcon (F. Murray Abraham) and a huckster hustler trying to bring all sides into accord (Bobby Cannavale, very much in the driver's seat in a star-making Broadway debut).
Rebeck is also stepping up to the Broadway league with this play, having been a prolific force Off-Broadway. "Like, ten plays to get here," she laughed, but she insisted it was worth it.
Why this play for a Main Stem arrival over the nine that preceded it? "You know what? I can't answer that," she admitted. "Other people have asked me that question, and I don't know the answer because I think there's a kind of kismet aspect to it, and also other people are in control of those decisions so it's not something I understand the logic of from the inside. You could ask other producers. They might have other theories." While readying Mauritius for Broadway, she has been spinning two other plates on the side: "I have a novel coming out next spring, called 'Three Girls and Their Brother,' for Random House. And I'm going to Denver in December to do a new play, directed by Daniel Fish. It's called Our House, and it'll be done at Denver Center Theatre."
Hopefully, these projects won't require the research that this play did. She knew nada about the world of serious stamp collecting when she started it, but "I did a lot of homework, googled a lot, talked to people. Those stamps are historically valuable, and they're very, very real. They were printed when Mauritius was a British protectorate, and they have the face of Queen Victoria. They're out there, and they're sorta together and uncanceled. There was just one plate of these stamps that were plated with these plates."
This given is enough to get five ace actors to scrap up a storm. Rebeck views it as close-quarter boxing. "That's what I'm thinking when I'm watching them. Those guys are really going at it."
Maybe it's the Amadeus influence, but Abraham reached for a more genteel and refined reference: "I was thinking more like a quintet playing some very good music."
He admitted he enjoyed the battle-royals of rehearsals and the results it has brought. "In a couple or three or four months, we'll be separated. And, to me, you've got to savor these times because, you know as well as I do, the good times don't happen that often."
"It has been like a playground," Baker added. "We're having fun. In fact, we've had actors come up to us, and they're jealous. They would like to become a part of it. They can see we're having a ball."
Frankly, Baker is a little surprised to be a part of it. "When I read the script, I said, 'I have no idea who this guy is. I know it's not me.' And Doug Hughes said, 'Well, let's take the journey and find out where you'll go.' And because I trust Doug Hughes — I've never worked with him before. I've wanted to for years. In fact, Becky [Dylan's actress-wife Becky Ann Baker] has enjoyed both times she has worked with him so much that I said, 'Sounds good. Let's try it.''
The director provided Baker a backstory. "Doug told me that he was walking down the street and he found this bookstore down on 12th Street so he went in, and he said the guy at the bookstore was so disdainful of him. It was, like, 'This is my store, and you are obviously an idiot. Please leave.' It actually happened to Doug, and that's all he told me. This guy is obviously one of those experts — he is just tired of humanity not being able to catch up with him. There's a meanness to him. He belittles everybody, but Theresa's writing is so wonderful that people don't immediately turn away. They embrace. They go, 'Oh, I know that guy.'"
Director Hughes' attraction to the project was the contest itself and the contestants he got to people it: "I like mysteries. I like plays that have secrets at their bottoms. And this quintet of people I've always — always — wanted to work with. Every single one of them I've tried to get at various times in the past — Dylan Baker I've tried to get for a decade to do a play, and I wanted Alison Pill to replace on Broadway in Doubt — and finally they all showed up at the same time."
Returning to the scene of their Tony-nominated triumphs (for Rabbit Hole) — the Biltmore — were Tyne Daly and Pulitzer Prize-winning David Lindsay-Abaire, with wife Chris. A more recent pair of Biltmore Tony-nominees also attended — Michael Cerveris and David Pittu, the Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht of Hal Prince's LoveMusik.
Ben Gazzara, with wife Elke Krivat, arrived just as a Meara-less Jerry Stiller and Gerald Schoenfeld reached the Biltmore, so there was flurry of Ben & Jerry photographs from the paparazzi at the theatre's entrance.
Two Tony winners from Doubt arrived separately: author John Patrick Shanley and featured actress Adriane Lenox. He's directing the movie version, but he hasn't mentioned anything to her about reprising her 11th hour blue-blazes tirade for the camera.
"I assume they're going to go with all new people," she shrugged helplessly. (And Oscar winners, at that: Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman). So she'll just continue her stretch in Chicago at the Ambassador ("I've been extended until Nov. 18"). Newer Tony winner in town, Julie White, came down the wrong aisle and had to cut through a long line of seated patrons. "Excuse me," she sputtered, "I have to get to my seat next Helen Hayes." (That's Julie White smart-talk for Marian Seldes.)
Buses provided by MTC spared first-nighters a pleasant eight/nine-block stroll to the after-party at the Bryant Park Grill. The celebrity dining space was the outdoor section of the restaurant, which unfortunately had been tented for the occasion, creating an uncomfortable hothouse/pressure-cooker effect. The wily Irish in The Seafarer contingent that's Booth-bound — Conleth Hill, writer-director Conor McPherson, Jim Norton, Ciaran Hinds — shrewdly settled inland in the air-conditioned interior area.
For an opening-night cheering section, Cannavale had on hand Patricia Clarkson and Peter Dinklage, his eccentric comrades from "The Station Agent," the film that brought stardom and an ensemble nomination from the Screen Actors Guild for all three.
Dinklage is about to hit the stage again himself — at the Acorn Theatre in a new Jonathan Marc Sherman play, Things We Want, which Ethan Hawke will direct — and he arrived at the theatre with Josh Hamilton and Paul Dano, his bros in the play. Their leading lady is a new actress in ascent Off-Broadway, Zoe Kazan, granddaughter of "Gadge."
As for Clarkson, we seemed to have lost her to films for a while. She had a film in the New York Film Festival — "Married Life" with Chris Cooper and Pierce Brosnan ("How beautiful is that film!") — and another in the theatres right away — "Lars and the Real Girl" in which Ryan Gosling falls in love with a doll ("I play his therapist — I try to make him better"). She has just finished four movies back to back and was still huffing — one with Elle Fanning ("Hurricane Mary"), one with Woody Allen (untitled), one with Sir Ben Kingsley ("Elegy"). Does he insist on being called Sir Ben? "I did the very hot and sexy [scene] with him so I call him Ben," she said.
Having made it from The Coast of Utopia to Williamstown (for The Front Page), Jason Butler Harner is now heading for the West Coast to do a movie, "The Changeling," with Clint Eastwood directing. Angelina Jolie will star as a mother whose son is kidnapped; when the LAPD returns the child, she begins to believe the boy they've given her isn't really her son. "It's got a bunch of good actors in it" [by his definition, New York stage actors: Reed Birney, Denis O'Hare, Frank Wood, Amy Ryan]. It's going to be made in Los Angeles, and I play a horrible, horrible, wonderful person."
Character actor Joe Grifasi said his next stage move will be in January: "I'm going to do Richard Nelson's new play, Conversations at Tusculum, with Brian Dennehy, Michael Cerveris and David Straithairn, at The Public." Nelson will direct his drama, as is his wont.
For lyricist Susan Birkenhead, Christmas has come a little earlier this year (although Duane Reade already has its Xmas decorations up): "Jim Magruder, who has written The Flamingo Kid musical with me and Henry Krieger, was commissioned by Arena Stage in Washington to do Christmas Carol 1941, which is sorta based on a story about his family as well as Dickens' 'Christmas Carol.' We read the script, loved it and wrote four songs for it — actually, five because there's a big reprise." It plays Arena Stage Nov. 16-Dec. 30, and a New York stop may be in the making come next Christmas.
Actor Michael Tisdale, who just finished an Off-Broadway run of The Private Lives of Eskimos by Ken Urban, said he has cleared the deck to workshop his own play up at Hartford Stage. "It's called Goldstar, Ohio," he said. "I'm not going to be in it, but Michael Stuhlbarg will be. I spent the last two years interviewing families of Marines who were killed in Iraq, and I have made a theatre piece based on it."
There was a plethora of playwrights around: A.R. Gurney Jr., Terrence McNally (whose Ritz rates a Roundabout revival next week — the buzz on that are the same seven words: "What have you heard about The Ritz?"), Itamar Moses and Adam Bock.
Also attending: Blythe Danner, Kieran Culkin, producer-actress Tamara Tunie, Jamie Hector from HBO's "The Wire," Janel Maloney, director-and-backsliding-actor Walter Bobbie, Leigh Silverman, novelist Erica Jong, Patricia Conolly ("Today was our first day of rehearsal for this — I almost said new — this farce Mark Twain wrote, Is He Dead?"), Joey Slotnick, Chris Noth (currently taking "Big" to the big screen, enjoying his night off from the "Sex and the City" feature filming), Rene Fris of Bravo's "Shear Genius," Josh Charles, Tony winners Cady Huffman and Victoria Clark, Robert Foxworth, Amanda Green and Phyllis Newman, Sean Mahon, director Des McAnuff (who's started tinkering with The Farnsworth Invention for its Music Box bow Nov. 14), Paxton Whitehead, John Turturro and his actress-wife Katherine Borowitz.
The evening's Broadway virgin, catching his very first show, was Gregory Smith, who was in town promoting his new picture, "The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising").
Just before the curtain went up, in the far right aisle, there was a sudden cluster of all the king's men, in bent-down formation. Eventually rising out of them, like Esther Williams in an aqua-ballet, came Celeste Holm. The 90-year-old had tripped on the rug and taken a spill in the aisle — but she rebounded like Beyonce smiling though any bruised dignity. At the curtain call, she was standing with the rest of us — and she stayed late at the party, too.