The drinks are flying in “The Explorers Club,” and I don’t mean at intermission. The bartender slides them so forcefully off the dark wood bar on stage and in such rapid succession that it amounts to a circus stunt for the customers to catch them. The bartender, you see, is a blue-skinned savage from the Lost City of Pahatlabong, and his customers are the members of a proper British explorers club circa 1879 who are disguising him as their bartender because he slapped the Queen of England – which is the standard greeting, you see, among the NaKong tribesmen, but which the British Empire has taken the wrong way, and plans to start a war over it.
Of course you won’t see any of this unless you go to Nell Benjamin’s new play “The Explorers Club,” which has opened at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s City Center Stage 1. It is the sort of play that seems to beg to be called “mad-cap” and “zany.” Those drinks are not all that’s flying over Donyale’s Werle busy, grotesquely beautiful set (reminiscent of her best-known work, the set of “Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson”) of dark wood, oil paintings and stuffed dead animals. “The Explorers Club” is itself stuffed with a deadly cobra,an errant guinea pig, a woman explorer rejected for membership in the all-male club, an “archeo-theologist” who studies the “science of the Bible,” a seductive deadly plant, and an Irish would-be assassin who is killed and used as a coat-rack.
Benjamin, it must be said, is not an elderly British playwright who traffics in the peculiar, farcical national brand of humor that on occasion skirts the edge of offensive. She is an American playwright, the co-composer and lyricist of “Legally Blonde” who in this often very funny play traffics in the peculiar British brand of humor that skirts the edge of offensive.
The nine-member cast is full of first-rate performers with flawless comic timing. Jennifer Westfeldt plays Phyllida Spotte-Hume, the woman explorer who has discovered the Lost Island, and brought home the blue savage, whom she calls Luigi; we learn later that she names all her pets Luigi, after a dance instructor with whom she had an affair. Westfeldt also portrays Phyllida’s much more proper sister, the countess. John McMartin portrays that Bible scientist, who acknowledges that Phyllida has made an impressive discovery. “Your science is adequate, but your sex is weak with sin and led astray with diverse lusts. No offense.” On the other hand, Lucius Fretway, played with awkward ardor by Lorenzo Pisoni, is pushing for her membership, and seeking her love. Brian Avers plays a scientist partial to poisonous snakes and Steve Boyer to their prey. But the most memorable performance is Carson Elrod’s as the member of a mythical nation, who speaks in apocryphal language, but delivers the most palpable of laughs
The Explorers Club
Manhattan Theatre Club At City Center Stage I, 131 West 55th Street
By Nell Benjamin; directed by Marc Bruni; sets by Donyale Werle; costumes by Anita Yavich; lighting by Philip Rosenberg; sound by Darron L. West; music by Laurence O’Keefe; hair and wig design by Tom Watson; makeup by Angelina Avallone;
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) and Jennifer Westfeldt (Phyllida Spotte-Hume/Countess Glamorgan).
Running time: 95 minutes
Ticket prices: $85
The Explorers Club is set to run through July 21.