That simple credo functions as an affectionate and eventually ironic toast across the span of its numerous utterances in The Explorers Club, the new play by Nell Benjamin that Manhattan Theatre Club just opened at its Stage I space. Though it’s usually delivered in the immediate wake of some ridiculous occurrence or claim, it’s also a reliable approach for assessing a play like this one, which you’d think couldn’t get upright at all and yet by some miracle stands tall.
This is because Benjamin has focused in her sparkling writing, and Marc Bruni in his rambunctious direction, on making sure The Explorers Club is as rigid and rigorous as a physics formula. You may not love the conclusion or the method that’s used to arrive at it, but the raw reasoning behind it all is essentially inarguable.
Begin with controlled conditions. There’s no question that a colorful, theatrical locale, ripe for comedic exploration, is suggested by the storied hall of the titular organization, in chummy old Victorian London (1879, to be exact). Sexual repression tints most interactions, true, and matters of class are still sweeping concerns. But zooming in on Donyale Werle’s spectacular set tells you still more: The rich oak-paneled walls and parquetted floor are adorned with literal trophies to the group’s accomplishments in the presence of shrunken heads and golden religious totems; elephant tusks, a rhinoceros horn, a cheetah-skin rug, and a walrus bust in full view; and lush oil paintings of historic accomplishments apparently under threat by circling sharks or a menacing polar bear.
Next, define the basis for the experiment. The club’s annual meeting introduces us to its most prominent members: Lucius Fretway (Lorenzo Pisoni), a botanist and the president pro tempore filling in for the true office holder who’s “leading the Pole expedition”; herpetologist Professor Cope (Brian Avers), especially in love with the snake named Rosie he wears around his neck; Professor Walling (Steven Boyer), a zoologist famed for his studies about guinea pigs opening cage doors (except for one, named Jane, who couldn’t figure out the procedure); and esteemed archeo-theologist Professor Sloane (John McMartin), who filters everything he does through the lens of the church.
Time to introduce the foreign agents. Foremost among those is Phyllida Spotte-Hume (Jennifer Westfeldt), an explorer who discovers hidden villages, conquers ancient tribes with spoons, and even builds airships. On her most recent trek to the Lost City of Pahatlabong, she even convinced a local warrior to come back with her. That man decked out in blue body paint, whom she calls Luigi (Carson Elrod), sees head slapping as a form of greeting, which naturally proves disastrous when he comes before the Queen.
The broadest theme here is the investigation of progressive cultural attitudes between the genders, and the difficulty women have of piercing the skin of male enclaves even when they deserve to be included. (The thinly veiled point, and the longest-running joke, is that Phyllida is far more qualified than any of her colleagues.) But Benjamin never lets the play become a harangue.
Instead, it’s always amusing and occasionally flat-out hilarious — who knew that alcohol poisoning and cobra bites could inspire show-stopping laughter? — with a giddy collection of alchemically flawless performers (impeccably adorned by costume designer Anita Yavich). Furr, bearing a manner as overstuffed as his moustache; Elrod, who creates a vibrantly foreign personality through uttering only a handful of words); McMartin, summoning an air of heady, cocky confidence; and Westfeldt, who’s primly deceptive as the frustrated Phyllida were my particular favorites, but there’s no weak link to be found.
Despite their work, I wouldn’t claim that this is a great play. Aside from Bruni’s staging, which pops with surprises and maintains clock-precise pacing throughout the 95-minute (with an intermission) running time, Benjamin, like any good scientist, is meticulous in showing her work. This deprives the evening of some spontaneity; once she’s laid out all her material components, you’re never much in doubt about what she’ll create with them. And once she’s tangled together so many plot threads that you realize there’s only one way to untangle them all (which occurs in the last 20 minutes or so), the show becomes little more than a waiting game.
Until then it’s legitimately infectious, finding an inordinate amount of fun in topics and situations that could easily be considered well-trod, dreary, or both. To all the lovers of intricately carved and complexly constructed comedies who will probably not be thrilled by this play’s more rudimentary, by-the-numbers pleasures, I would usually be with you. But this time, I must join with the others in The Explorers Club in saluting a show that succeeds, if for no other reason than because its writer gave it no other choice. To science!
The Explorers Club