Friday, July 19, 2013

Finding the Funny at The Explorers Club

David Furr and Lorenzo Pisoni as Harry Percy and
Lucius Fretway. Photo by Joan Marcus.
The Explorers Club, by Nell Benjamin. Directed by Marc Bruni. Starring Jennifer Westfeldt, Lorenzo Pisoni, and David Furr. Currently running at Manhattan Theatre Club, City Center Stage 1 through August 4th, 2013.

The Explorers Club, a new play by Nell Benjamin, is a sparkling love letter to old-school British farce. It's a lushly-designed one-set play stuffed to the walls with eccentric characters, chaotic misunderstandings, slapstick, wordplay, and one or two mistaken identities and impersonations.

The play opens in London, 1879, with a meeting of the members of this exclusive Explorers Club, where our timid and clumsy hero, Lucius (Lorenzo Pisoni), proposes the admission of the club's first female, Phyllida Spotte-Hume (Jennifer Westfeldt). Met with responses varying from oblivious geniality to outright moral indignation - John McMartin, perpetually clutching his bible as the doddering Professor Sloane, is particularly scandalized by the notion - Phyllida soon wins the rest of the members over with the presentation of Luigi, a member of an elusive tribe from a hitherto lost city. However, after a disastrous introduction to the Queen (Luigi's traditional manner of greeting is slapping the other in the face), the club soon finds itself under siege by not just Her Majesty's army, but also a mob of angry Irishmen and a group of monks who can kick people's heads off. Things are looking pretty dire, as vines of Lucius's latest plant discovery climb the walls and railings of the club.

Lorenzo Pisoni and Carson Elrod as Lucius and Luigi, cowering beneath
the vines of the Phyllida plant. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Direness is, of course, where the fun begins, when it comes to farces. And fun there is. The entire ensemble shines, led in particular by David Furr's blowhard adventurer Harry Percy, Carson Elrod's prowling but wry Luigi, and Lorenzo Pisoni's budding strength as the resident straight man (and acrobat), Lucius. Couched in Donyale Werle's sumptuous set of antlers, tusks, furs, and a walrus head, the characters strive in their madcap manner to keep the attacking hoards at bay and reinstate order to their little club.

Listen, analytic language aside, I highly recommend you see this play. I don't think I've laughed this embarrassingly loudly in a theatre since James Corden's tour de force in Once Man, Two Guv'nors. The cast is top-notch, the direction by Marc Bruni is sharp, the jokes are funny, there's a routine with whiskey glasses that gets scarier and better with each repeat, and the whole thing wraps up in that satisfying way that all farces can and must.

The only awkwardness comes when the play tries to grapple with its time period. This is a period piece, which comes with period prejudices, but it was written now. And so while we are stuffed with pompous gentlemen who don't want silly women infringing on their fun (one even delivering the bon mot: "They get these little whims, you see. That's why we call them women."), that mentality is thoroughly squashed when Jennifer Westfeldt portrays not one, but two strong independent women who don't need no man. Feminism may be running roughshod over misogyny in Benjamin's play, but the uncomfortable British Imperialism continues unchecked. Delightful as Carson Elrod is in the role of Luigi, we cannot ignore that we are watching a white man, painted blue, playing a native. And while some of that infantilization of the "savages" is mitigated as we see him become a first-class bartender, the fact remains that he ends the play a servant to the white man, separated from his tribe.

Jennifer Westfeldt as Phyllida Spotte-Hume and the cast.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

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