Aisle View: Exploring the Empire, with Laughs

Seriously demented fun is on display at The Explorers Club. That is, the new play by Nell Benjamin at the Manhattan Theatre Club's Stage 1 at City Center.

Benjamin -- best known hereabouts as co-composer/lyricist of Legally Blonde -- has set her tale in one of those scientific gentleman's clubs of the Victorian Era, similar to the Royal Geographical Society. But a second-tier club, very much outclassed by its superiors. Lucius Fretway, our hero, is a botanist; he has just discovered a new species -- Phyllida venusti, he calls it -- which when smoked causes euphoria and happiness. (Fretway rolls cigars from the leaves, and yes -- the Explorers do inhale.) Professor Cope is a herpetologist who has discovered an especially poisonous cobra, Professor Walling a zoologist who has documented the intellectual abilities of the guinea pig. His experiments have proven that the critters can teach themselves to open the latches on their cages. Only now he can't find them.

Professor Sloane is an Archeo-Theologist, studying the science of the Bible. He has tracked the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel to Ireland, explaining that the ancient Hill of Tara -- the traditional seat of the High King of Ireland -- is derived from Torah. Sloane insists that the Irish be relocated to Palestine, causing a violent riot outside the Club's windows. The president of the club, Sir Harry Percy, is something of a fraud: he boasts that he has just become the first man to set foot on the East Pole. The rest of his expedition was conveniently lost, leaving him the only witness.

Complications arise with the arrival of Phyllida Spotte-Hume, a Nellie Bly-like adventuress who has discovered an unknown tribe in Pahatlabong. She brings back a native NaKong nicknamed Luigi, covered in powder-blue body paint with navy blue ribs. Luigi speaks an imaginary language, inadvertently slaps Queen Victoria in the face -- literally so -- and turns out to be an expert mixologist. Ms. Spotte-Hume also designs and builds an airship overnight, in 1879; when asked whether it is fast, she answers that it is "no use building a slow airship." No matter if we borrow some of Ms. Benjamin's jokes for dissemination here, there are plenty more.

The hazards of constructing such a farce are several, including running out of contrivances fresh enough to keep the wheels spinning; running out of second act jokes worthy of those in the first; and altogether running out of steam as the necessarily contrived plot runs its course. Benjamin keeps things bubbling nicely, with matters growing funnier rather than the opposite. She is abetted by director Marc Bruni, who keeps serving up jokes and sight gags. (He is currently represented by a very different but equally-funny opus called Old Jews Telling Jokes.) Bruni, or someone, has devised a brandy-delivery system of increasing complexity that received well-earned cheers at the performance attended.

Laurence O'Keefe -- also of Legally Blonde, as well as serving as the playwright's husband -- has provided gleefully bubbly music, mostly for scene changes. Standing out among the other contributions is the set by Donyale Werle (of Peter and the Starcatcher and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson). The Explorers Club may be intended as an also ran compared to the Geographic Society, but the multi-level barroom of the clubhouse -- with eight stuffed heads, among other decorations -- is luxe (if off-kilter).

Making matters even better is the cast. Jennifer Westfeldt (sister Eileen in Donna Murphy's Wonderful Town, screenwriter/star of Kissing Jessica Stein) is dandy as the indefatigable scientist storming the all-male precincts of the tradition-bound gentlemen's club. Lorenzo Pisoni -- memorable as the horse "Nugget" opposite Daniel Radcliffe in the recent Equus -- is capital as the shy botanist who loves the girl, while David Furr is suitably blustery as the conceited explorer from the East Pole.

Arnie Burton -- most recently Mrs. Bumbrake in Peter and the Starcatcher -- gives another droll performance as an ex-explorer turned chief of the Warrior Monks of Jho Dae. Carson Elrod -- like Burton an alumnus of Starcatcher, in which he played the obnoxious orphan -- is wonderful as the feral jungle-man Luigi. It is hard to tell what he actually looks like, though, with all that bluing. Finally, we have John McMartin as the hyper-religious, hyper-mysogonistic Sloane, ineffectively flapping his wrist to ward off the "harlot" with her ruby red lips. McMartin has been giving sly performances since Little Mary Sunshine in 1959, but I have never seen him quite so funny as he is here.

There are no doubt some current playgoers who will find the fast-paced and word-packed humor a bit too Marxian -- Groucho, not Karl -- for their taste. For those who appreciate the finer things, though, Nell Benjamin's Explorers Club is deliciously daffy and downright dandy.