Friday, June 7, 2013

The Explorers Club ***

(Please click on the title to see the complete review.)
If you go to Nell Benjamin's new play now in previews at Manhattan Theatre Club's Stage I, be sure to arrive a few minutes early so you will have time to savor Donyale Werle's spectacular set. Just seeing this recreation of a Victorian men's club in London with its dark paneling, oriental rugs, stuffed animals, animal heads, horns, tusks and pelts, shrunken heads, spears and swords is almost worth the price of admission. Another reason to see the show is a brilliant piece of stage business in the second act that elicits appreciative gasps from the audience each time it is repeated. A final plus is the superb ensemble cast giving their all to animate what is billed as a "madcap comedy." Carson Elrod, who was so good in All in the Timing recently, is wonderful as Luigi, the blue-painted native brought back from the Lost City by Phyllida Spot-Hume (Jennifer Westfeldt), who would like to become the first woman in the Explorers Club. Lorenzo Pisoni, who usually plays a heartthrob, is cast against type as Lucius Fretway, a shy, clumsy botanist who yearns for Phyllida. David Furr is delightful as Harry Percy, the club's none-too-bright president, whose expeditions have an unusually high mortality rate. John McMartin is droll as a Professor of Bible Science whose hypothesis that the Irish are the lost tribes of Israel causes an international incident. A snafu when Luigi is presented to the Queen leads to a declaration of war. Act One gets a bit bogged down in exposition and seems more like satire than farce. Act two, however, rises to hilarity several times. I wish the humor had been more consistently maintained, but it would be churlish to dislike a play that is so amiable. Anita Yavich's costumes are excellent. Marc Bruni's direction is mostly smooth. Running time: one hour, 50 minutes with intermission.

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