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A CurtainUp Review
The Explorers Club

Additional Comments by Elyse Sommer
"Hmpf. This is an Explorers Club, not a garden party Miss Spotte-Hume. Your science is adequate, but your sex is weak with sin and led astray with divers lusts. No offense." — Sloane

Explorers Club
Lorenzo Pisoni, Carson Elrod, Jennifer Westfeldt (Photo: Joan Marcus)
Among all the styles of dramatic literature, the farce remains the most difficult to contain and sustain successfully within its prescribed guidelines. Without writing a dissertation on the model for classic farces whether they are by Plautus or Moliere and such recent a contemporary exponents as the finally acclaimed Christopher Durang, the form, more commonly referred to now as "madcap comedy" continues to welcome all who dare. So, with numerous reservations, I acknowledge Nell Benjamin's The Explorers Club now at the Manhattan Theatre Club's aNew York City Center Stage 1.

The willingness and the inclination to laugh even when a farce simply is not funny or just not as funny as it should be seems to have persuaded about half of the audience at the performance that I saw respond enthusiastically to the sheer and utter inanity that prevails in this play about a woman scientist who in 1879 attempts to join London's all-male Explorers Club. The other half, with which I am more inclined to side, could evidently see that the capriciously constructed plot unfortunately lost its footing and pace quite soon after it had begun.

From the start we are impressed and in awe, if not by the play but by the setting designed by Donyale Werle. The spectacularly evoked post-Victorian bar-parlor of the busily-appointed Explorers Club is a taxidermist's delight with a myriad of mounted animal heads, shrunken heads lined up on the bar, a giraffe skin rug, even an upright stuffed bear. I was relieved that there wasn't a single moose head in view.

My disappointment in the play does not preclude compensations, particularly some stand-out performances by the commendably game (no pun intended) actors, most of whom appear dedicated to exploring their roles with adrenalin-harnessed affection. They did this despite Marc Bruni's direction, notable throughout for its general lack of pace and precision, with one notable and exceptional bit of business in the second act.

That exceptional bit allowed for some spot-on, brilliantly executed shtick involving the ferocious mixing and frenetic serving of drinks, but any more about that would be a spoiler. Up until that point we are engaged with getting caught up in the ways and means that anthropologist Phyllida Spotte-Hume (Jennifer Wesfeldt) uses to gain membership and win approval of her peers in the restricted-to-men club where a group of stuffy, self-absorbed scientists have gathered for their annual meeting.

But the success of the meeting appears to be completely determined by their missing and incompetent bartender. The possibility that they are not going to have their "sacred time of brandy and cigars" is their major concern. Even more disconcerting to them is the attention being given to Phyllida who has proudly brought along for show-and-tell accreditation a fierce-looking NaKong tribesman (Carson Elrod) whose volatile, uncivilized behavior proves no more or less unpredictable than is anyone's.

The body of the captive tribesman whom she calls Luigi is painted as if he were a fugitive from the road company of Blue Man Group. He has been brought back to London by Phyllida from the lost city of "Pahatlabong" that she claims to have found in the jungle. Her plan is to present Luigi to the Queen giving her the needed commendation to impress this collection of loonies.

Among the least loony is the nerdy botanist Lucius Fretway (Lorenzo Pisoni) who appears to be the youngest member, albeit a klutz who regularly bumps into furniture. His proudest achievement is a plant — think The Little Shop of Horrors — whose vapors induce one into a coma and death — and that entwines everything in the club room with ever-growing vines during the night. Pisoni, whom we recall being the wonderfully clownish acrobat in the delightful Off-Broadway hit Humor Abuse, is terrific as Lucius who is immediately smitten with the charming Phyllida. Lucius' chief rival for the lady scientist's affection is the intrepid explorer Percy (David Furr), the President of the club whose macho posturing is as absurd as his claim to discovering the "East Pole."

Taken bit by bit there are some rare comic moments offered by Broadway veteran John McMartin as Professor Sloane, a sexist, archeo-theologist (don't' ask) determined to prove that the Irish are the lost tribe of Israel. His presumption leads to a confrontation between the Irish and British army which has surrounded the Club, all the while the Queen has ordered the arrest of Luigi (I'll leave it to you to find out why) and declared war on Pahatlabong where Phillida has escaped on a flying machine of her own making.

The unexpected arrival of a Countess who happens to be Phyllida's twin and an Irish assassin (Arnie Burton) adds to the generally slipshod layering of chaos. Caught in the middle of this you may find yourself exploring the various possible ways to escape with or without a flying machine.


Additional Comments by Elyse Sommer
I saw The Explorers Club the day after Simon did and I agree that this is hardly going to join the ranks of most consistently funny farces. However it's only fair to add that the audience members at my performance who seemed to love it all outnumbered those put off by its farcical shortcomings. A fellow in the row in front of me laughed so hard that I thought if he rocked up and down any harder he might fall out of his seat. It should also be added that the bar scene that was this play's coup was given a sort of encore so that it seemed to dominate the second act.

I'd also like to give a shout out to Ania Yavich's wonderful costumes, especially for the lovely Jennifer Westfeldt. As for Donyale Werle's set, the company could probably sell tickets for people to just walk around the stage and examine it all as they would a museum display. Since that's unlikely to happen, a few details about how Werle created this truly drop dead setting as revealed to Brian Scott Lipton in his excellent article for the TDF Theater Magazine: That giraffe rug was actually created from a cowhide rug Werle found and had it cut into the shape of a giraffe and painted with spots. By the same token all those grand looking paintings of past explorers were actually computer generated prints given a special gel coating to give them the look of oil paintings of men looking brave in the face of the various horrible causes of death that could befall an explorer. The whole article can be read at http://wp.tdf.org/index.php/2013/06/explorers-club-manhattan-theatre-club/#more-4647.

Finally, a caveat. The theater, at least when I was there, was cold enough to make me feel as if I were myself on an arctic expedition and wishing I could borrow that fur coat worn by David Furr (whose Harry Percy was one of my favorite characters). And so, unless you're one of those warm blooded types that's comfortable in short sleeves no matter what the temperature, bring a jacket!

The Explorers Club
By Nell Benjamin
Directed by Marc Bruni

Cast: Brian Avers (Professor Cope), Max Baker (Sir Bernard Humphries), Steven Boyer (Professor Walling (Arnie Burton (Beebe/An Irish Assassin), Carson Elrod (Luigi), David Furr (Harry Percy), John McMartin (Professor Sloane), Lorenzo Pisoni (Lucius Fretway), Jennifer Westfeldt (Phylidda Spotte-Hume/Countess Glamorgan)
Scenic Design: Donyale Werle
Costume Design: Ania Yavich
Lighting Design: Philip Rosenberg
Sound Design: Darron L. West
Original Music: Laurence O'Keefe
Running Time: 1 hour 45 minutes including intermission
Manhattan Theatre Club, New York City Center Stage 1, 131 West 55th Street
CityTix at 212-581-1212
Performances: Tuesday and Wednesday at 7 PM, Thursday through Saturday at 8 PM. Matinees on Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday at 2 PM. (There are some exception to this schedule, so please check with the box-office.)
From 06/16/13 Opened 06/20/13 Ends 07/21/13
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 06/14/03
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