Now at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Stage I in the basement of the New York City Center the air conditioning is cranked way up and a screwball comedy by the name of The Explorers Club by Nell Benjamin is running wild. Directed by Marc Bruni with an eye towards finding every possible laugh imaginable, the play depicts a 19th Century British men’s club for explorers. Lucius Fretway, played by the Hugh Grant-ish Lorenzo Pisoni, wants to introduce a woman explorer into the club. Fretway has a crush on the the woman, Phyllida (Jennifer Westfeldt), but she is also a great candidate, for she has brought back a native she has named Luigi (Carson Elrod), painted warrior blue and trained to bow when he meets the Queen. Another explorer, Harry Percy (David Furr), who has discovered the East Pole, is after her affections by way of his hyper-masculinity. A pair of professors, one who likes snakes and the other rodents (Brian Avers and Steven Boyer) are delightfully daffy and a clergyman, Professor Sloan (John McMartin), isn’t going to put up with a woman in the club. The mix generates plenty of witty lines: lampooning male chauvinism, religion, British colonialism and science as well as enough physical comedy to make the Marx Brothers proud. In fact, this play is the kind of set up that might have made a fine Marx Brothers Broadway outing back in the 1920s.
One new plot element after another builds the comedy to ridiculous heights as Luigi slaps the Queen (his native way of saying hello) and war is declared on his homeland for which Phyllida has the only map. To save Luigi from this misunderstanding of motive, the gang disguises him as their bartender, Roger. When Sir Bernard Humphries (Max Baker) arrives on behalf of the Queen to secure the map and arrest Luigi, comedy mayhem ensues. The gags are plenty, the energy relentless and this frothy libation goes down well.
Donyale Werle has designed a set of a men’s club in great detail. These places still exist, even in New York where the Harvard Club or the Player’s Club still function as they have for a century. The dark wood, the floor to ceiling bookshelves, the framed portraits, the taxidermy and most importantly the bar are all meticulously detailed. It is worth a walk up to the stage apron for a closer examination of all the work that’s been done to fully appreciated the artistry. Riding on top of the sumptuous setting is Anita Yavich’s costumes, which so richly complete the period picture and work within the over all design concept like a museum oil painting.
This comedy is perfect for a light summer night out at the theatre. Check out www.manhattantheatreclub.com for tickets and more information.