By: David Sheward
Mix a dash of Oscar Wilde with a generous serving of the Marx Brothers, stir in pratfalls and slamming doors, and you get The Explorers Club, Nell Benjamin’s perfectly intoxicating summertime cocktail, now available for imbibing courtesy of the talented theatrical bartenders at Manhattan Theatre Club. Benjamin (Legally Blonde: The Musical) combines myriad cultural stereotypes to create a wild comedy of clashing manners and mores, yet all the cartoonish characters retain their humanity. Yes, the zany goings-on are farcical and outlandish, but Benjamin keeps them honest within a bizarre framework.
The setting is the titular Victorian establishment, impeccably designed by Donyale Werle to conjure up visions of New Yorker cartoons and those Jules Verne-inspired adventure movies like Journey to the Center of the Earth. You can imagine it being the kind of place from which intrepid Britons set out on thrilling expeditions to lost cities. But the most dangerous element to cross into the stuffy lounge is not the blue-skinned native from such a godforsaken location, but the person who found him and brought him back to the club-Phyllida Spotte-Hume. As a female scientist being proposed for membership, she represents a devastating challenge to male-dominated British society.
Phyllida is not the only agent of change. Her aboriginal charge, nicknamed Luigi, slaps the queen in the face-his tribe’s form of greeting-and sets off an international incident. Meanwhile, one of the club’s more conservative members proposes that the 10 lost tribes of Israel wandered to Ireland and ignites another firestorm, this one involving the Irish furious at the suggestion that they migrate to Palestine. Meanwhile, clumsy but sincere botanist Lucius Fretway and dashingly handsome yet blindingly stupid adventurer Sir Harry Percy vie for Phyllida’s hand.
There is a hysterical piece of business where Luigi, disguised as the incompetent club barman, violently and rapidly throws full glasses at the scientists and not a drop of liquor is spilled. Director Marc Bruni executes a similarly amazing juggling act by keeping all the comic bits in the air. Benjamin’s razor-sharp satiric barbs are skillfully balanced with kooky observations on the chauvinistic attitudes of the members and a complex, inventive storyline. The cast couldn’t be better. As Lucius, the acrobatically gifted Lorenzo Pisoni evokes such cinematic scientific klutzes as Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby and Henry Fonda in The Lady Eve. It takes a really agile performer to appear clumsy while executing such intricate maneuvers as Pisoni does. He also gets across Lucius’s desperate insecurity and longing for Phyllida, a poised and sparkling Jennifer Westfeldt, who also appears in another surprise role. David Furr is rugged and oblivious as the blustery Harry, while Joh
n McMartin, Brian Avers, and Steven Boyer are amusingly dotty as the remaining members. Max Baker is properly pompous as a representative of Her Majesty’s government, Carson Elrod creates a completely credible savage Luigi, and Arnie Burton does much with two small roles: an Irish assassin and an aggrieved explorer returning to the club after surviving a hideous ordeal in Tibet. His re-enactment of the incident is just one of dozens of hilarious moments in this delightfully daffy show.
June 20-Aug. 4. Manhattan Theatre Club at NY City Center Stage I, 131 W. 55th St., NYC. Tue-Wed 7pm, Thu-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm & 7pm. Running time 1 hour and 40 minutes, including intermission. $85. (212) 581-1212.
Originally Published on July 19, 2013 in ArtsinNY.com