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NEW YORK REVIEW: The Explorers' Club

Published by: Cameron Lowe on 19th Jul 2013 | View all blogs by Cameron Lowe

By Lucy Komisar in New York

I haven’t seen such a clever, funny, outrageous satirical play in years as this work by Nell Benjamin! It’s London in 1879. A very stodgy club of naturalists and explorers is having its annual meeting in a Victorian townhouse whose every inch of wood-paneled walls is decorated with tusks and stuffed animal heads and paintings of illustrious members. At the back, center, is a bar. (The explorer-spoofing set is by Donyale Werle.)

Brian Avers as Professor Cope, Steven Boyer as Professor Walling, photo Joan Marcus.

Brian Avers as Professor Cope, Steven Boyer as Professor Walling, photo Joan Marcus.

One of the members, Professor Walling (a nerdy Steven Boyer), is holding a guinea pig in a wicker cage. It’s the only one he has left after, in an experiment, he put food outside cages of his other mouse-like creatures to see if they could figure out the latches. They did. Now he can’t find them, except for Jane, the only slacker, who couldn’t open the cage door.

Professor Cope (the puffed up Brian Avers), who discovered a deadly new species of cobra, wears one around his neck. She is Rosie, named for his mother.

Not that Benjamin is dissing biology; she is just making fun of these self-important male researchers who have anthropomorphized rodents and snakes. Compare them to intrepid anthropologist and explorer Phyllida Spotte-Hume (Jennifer Westfeldt), who has just discovered a legendary Lost City. Lucius Fretway (Lorenzo Pisoni), acting president, has invited her to give the club’s annual lecture, and he wants to propose her for membership.

However, the other men demur, because she is a woman. Forget that she is talented and they are fools. Westfeldt is a brilliant Phyllida, smart, assertive, ingenious and slightly surprised that the stupid men don’t treat her as she deserves.

Carson Elrod as Luigi, Jennifer Westfeldt as Phyllida Spotte-Hume, Lorenzo Pisoni as Lucius Fretway, photo Joan Marcus.

Carson Elrod as Luigi, Jennifer Westfeldt as Phyllida Spotte-Hume, Lorenzo Pisoni as Lucius Fretway, photo Joan Marcus.

Nevertheless, Lucius presents Phyllida. She has arrived with Luigi (Carson Elrod), a warrior of the Lost City of Pahatlabonga’s NaKong tribe. Luigi is marked with blue paint, including a line from his scalp down his nose that ends in rough pants tied with a cord. He is also decorated with feathers and tattoos. (He is called Luigi, because Phyllida names everything Luigi.) Elrod is a delightful, quirky tribesman.

Phyllida proceeds to give a faux-erudite and satirical speech displaying British imperial contempt for the lesser folks of discovered lands. She notes that the expedition had set out with “cheap alcohol for the local guides and better quality alcohol for the stove.” But alas, she was “deserted by those guides who had not died of alcohol poisoning.”

She plans to present Luigi to Queen Victoria. As it happens, Cope and Walling are also going to the palace to report on their discoveries and invite her to share a cab.

However, Phyllida does not find the same welcome from Professor Sloane (a pompous John McMartin), who declares, “Your science is adequate, but your sex is weak with sin and led astray with divers lusts. No offense.” Turns out he is professor of archeo-theology, which he declares is Biblical Science.

David Furr as Harry Percy, photo Joan Marcus.

David Furr as Harry Percy, photo Joan Marcus.

He explains, “There’s no reason the Bible can’t be used as a scientific text, and the Bible exhorts us to beware the evil woman.” Does this remind you of Christian fundamentalism?

Meanwhile, the club members have given Luigi a nice room and put Phyllida in the former potato cellar. Oh, and Luigi has one problem: when someone seeks to shake hands, he slaps them across the face, which is how the NaKong introduce themselves.

Harry Percy (a smooth, egotistical David Furr), the club president who has just returned (swathed in fur) from a Pole expedition, is another ridiculous male, who claims to have discovered the East Pole. (An East Pole?) When it’s time for brandy and cigars, he orders Phyllida to the lounge “with the other ladies.” She points out that there are no other ladies.

But there is more than social niceties (or rudeness) involved. Percy declares that brandy and cigars is “the heart and soul of the British Empire.…The Romans? The Persians? The…other ones. If they’d had brandy and cigars, we’d all be speaking Roman today.” In another aperçu, he asserts, “We are manly. And women are not.” He emphasizes manliness with a military costume he says is his old uniform — from a production of “HMS Pinafore.”

David Furr as Harry Percy, Lorenzo Pisoni as Lucius Fretway, Arnie Burton as Beebe. photo Joan Marcus.

David Furr as Harry Percy, Lorenzo Pisoni as Lucius Fretway, Arnie Burton as Beebe. photo Joan Marcus.

Benjamin cordially mocks religion. When Sloane tries to proselytize Luigi, Lucius declares, “He’s just repeating words he doesn’t understand.” Sloane replies, “That’s good enough for the church.” When Sloane declaims against lust, asserting that “a prostitute can be had for a loaf of bread!” Percy interjects, “Really? Where? They’re much more expensive where I go.”

Almost as an afterthought, another member of the club arrives. Beebe (Arnie Burton) was on Percy’s expedition. He was captured by the terrible Warrior Monks of Jho Dae, because Percy had desecrated their Sacred Mountain. He explains that the Jho Dae is a religious sect whose laws are collected in sacred scrolls called the Tao Ra. After talking about his awful ordeal in a miles-long underground maze filled with challenges and horrors, he declares that Jho Dae-ism is not for everyone. (Get it? Read the graf out loud.)

You really can’t imagine what happens when Walling with his cobra, Cope with the guinea pig, and Luigi in full get-up visit Queen Victoria. Let’s just say it leads to the Queen’s Private Secretary Humphries (Max Baker, also appropriately pompous) arriving to demand a map of Pahatlabong which the Brits will level with artillery to revenge an insult.

Jennifer Westfeldt as Phyllida Spotte-Hume, Carson Elrod as Luigi, Lorenzo Pisoni as Lucius Fretway, John McMartin as ProfessorSloane, David Furr as Harry Percy, Max Baker as Sir Bernard Humphries, photo Joan Marcus.

Jennifer Westfeldt as Phyllida Spotte-Hume, Carson Elrod as Luigi, Lorenzo Pisoni as Lucius Fretway, John McMartin as ProfessorSloane, David Furr as Harry Percy, Max Baker as Sir Bernard Humphries, photo Joan Marcus.

Humphries needs the map. He notes, “You can’t imagine the paperwork” when British forces attack the wrong target. Meanwhile, the Queen’s Guards surround the Explorers Club.

Aside from the intellectual slapstick (think Stoppard), there’s some wonderful physical farce. To hide him from Humphries, the club members dress Luigi as the bartender. He concocts complicated drinks and then slides them to members off the edge of the bar. “Hanjoy your drinks, sah!” Everyone miraculously catches them. And Phyllida outwits Her Majesty’s Private Secretary.

Kudos to Marc Bruni who has directed this event, making it both bitingly funny and good-spirited. Quite a feat. The same should be said for Nell Benjamin.

The Explorers Club.” Written by Nell Benjamin, directed by Marc Bruni. MTC at The City Center, 131 West 55th Street, New York City. 212-581-1212. Opened June 20, 2013; closes August 4, 2013. 7/17/13.

Lucy Komisar is a New York journalist and critic. Her website is The Komisar Scoop.

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