Farce is an extremely difficult balancing act, so it is with considerable delight that I strongly recommend The Explorers Club, currently playing at the Manhattan Theater Club at New York City Center Stage 1. I laughed long, loud and lustily, and required several cocktails afterward to regain composure.
The play takes place in London in 1879. The Explorers Club (wonderfully realized by set designer Donyale Werle as an elaborate bar filled with such exotica as elephant tusks and snowshoes) is faced with dramatic challenges: the acting president want to admit an accomplished female explorer, and the bartender is currently missing in action.
Phyllida Spotte-Hume (a marvelous Jennifer Westfeldt) arrives with her own savage, Luigi (the athletic Carson Elrod) to make her presentation; her candidacy is nearly undone by the returning hero Harry Percy (a magnificent David Furr) and elder archeologist and religious fanatic Professor Sloane (a wry John McMartin).
Fortunately, acting president Lucius Fretway (a handsome Lorenzo Pisoni) not only loves Spotte-Hume, but is actively campaigning for her inclusion. And her science is so impeccable! As the lady-explorer says when talking about the “lost tribe” from which Luigi came: “They have hunted nearly all the animals to extinction, and are forced to subsist on a jerky made of toad. The toad is poisonous. But most of the poison boils off when the toad is poached in urine…”
Well…, after Luigi accidentally slaps Queen Victoria (long story) and Sloane is nearly murdered by irate Irishmen after explaining that they are the lost tribe of Israel (ditto), the club is besieged by rioting Irishmen, the London police force, and, perhaps most insidiously, a cabal of murderous monks led by the vengeful former associate of Fretway.
Through the course of the evening, the savage disguises himself as the missing bartender, we have a visit from the home office, there is talk of airships, most cast members quote Gilbert & Sullivan and we are treated to some of the best physical comedy I have even seen on stage involving flying highball glasses. In short, this is a ribaldry funny cocktail created expressly for the Masterpiece Theatre set.
Kudos to Tony-nominated writer Nell Benjamin for concocting such a colorful bauble. In an age where political correctness would make imperial empire jokes nearly impossible, she upends the contemporary political discourse by reducing all politics to what they are at core: ludicrous folly.
The direction by Marc Bruni is spot-on, never missing a beat. The cast is uniformly excellent, and terrific support from Max Baker, Brian Avers, Steven Boyer and Arnie Burton.
The Explorers Club is playing though August 3rd, and this is a comedy not to be missed.