Drinks and sexist attitudes fly in The Explorers Club, the protofeminist farce now playing in a chortle-worthy production at Addison's WaterTower Theatre. Nell Benjamin's 2013 play is set in 1879 Victorian London in the polished and paneled saloon of a poncy men's club whose starchy members fancy themselves scientists and intellectuals.
The men's brains turn to mush, however, when a woman anthropologist, Phyllida Spotte-Hume (Dana Schultes), dares to request membership. She's championed by a love-struck botanist, Lucius Fretway (John-Michael Marrs), whose pet project is a mysterious plant that causes confusion, itching, coma and possible death to anyone who touches it.
Phyllida has just returned from an expedition to the Lost City of Pahatlabong, where she's studied the primitive NaKong Tribe and learned their ways. She's brought back a "feral jungle man" she's nicknamed "Luigi" (Michael Ulmer). Body painted in bright blue swirls, head topped in a feathery mohawk, Luigi is a survivor of a lost civilization, explains Phyllida, that has "hunted nearly all the animals to extinction and is 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."
Except for the smitten Lucius, the men of The Explorers Club grant Phyllida less respect than a plate of cold toad jerky. Professor Sloane (Michael Corolla), an "archaeo-theologist," says all women are "weak with sin." He's mistranslated the Old Testament and believes the lost tribes of Israel sought refuge in Ireland, a conclusion that's annoyed the Irish.
Professor Walling (Mark Shum) carries around his study subject, a fat guinea pig named Jane, which agitates his best friend, Professor Cope (Aaron Roberts), a herpetologist perpetually wrapped in his favorite cobra named Rosie. Late-arriving Harry Percy (Thomas Ward) is fresh from an aborted expedition to the nonexistent "East Pole," during which he's misplaced a fellow explorer named Beebe (Kyle Igneczi) near a monastery of unfriendly monks.
The men, in short, are eccentric idiots. The lady in their midst is brilliant, if a bit reluctant to assert herself when she's banished to the lobby while the gents enjoy brandy and cigars. And therein lies the comedy, a sort of mild but enjoyably silly Monty-Python-meets-Oscar-Wilde farce about old-fashioned attitudes and rigid manners in a certain slice of British society. Playwright Benjamin, best known as the Tony-nominated Legally Blonde lyricist, spends much of the first act explaining the characters' individual obsessions — if Austin Powers' friend Basil Exposition had popped by, he'd have fit right in — but then lets loose with goofier stuff in the second act. That's when Phyllida and the guys are trapped together in the club by Irish rebels upset at being told they're Jewish.
What they're all really trapped by are their beliefs, of course. Phyllida is the symbolic catalyst for social change, shaking up the men's old ideas about where women do and don't belong. Catalyst Two is Luigi, the wild man who adapts quickly to the ways of the gentlemen's inner sanctum. When Luigi's conscripted to stand in for the club's missing bartender, he turns out to have a natural talent for slinging booze, literally slinging cocktails off the bar and, in a particularly impressive bit of physical comedy (created by choreographer Babakayode Ipaye), directly into the outstretched paws of thirsty club members. He easily becomes one of the gang and is given a guest room, while Phyllida's sleeping quarters are in the potato bin.
Benjamin's play comments on religion, bigotry, racism, sexism, colonialism and other isms, all from a modern perspective but wrapped prettily in period language and costumes. The playwright also takes a swing at doubters of science, past and present. Every time the explorers take a drink, they toast "To science!" no matter how much of it they're clueless about.
WaterTower's production of The Explorers Club is a full-on transfer of the show from Fort Worth's Stage West (directed in both spaces by Jim Covault). The month-long run at Stage West has served to deliver tight, fast-paced performances by a cast of strong pros.
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Schultes gives Phyllida a likable nervous energy, then swoops in like a glossy bird of prey in the second act as that character's sister, the imperious Countess Glamorgan, who brooks no patience with the men's unyielding chauvinism.
Shum and Roberts, as the competing guinea pig and snake researchers, have impeccable comic chemistry. Ward, affecting the most believable British accent, captures the blank-faced snobbery of the upper class twit as he mansplains that, "We are manly. And women are not." His impressive naval uniform, donned to assert his masculinity, is from a production of Gilbert and Sullivan's HMS Pinafore. When Professor Sloane, played as an overconfident buffoon by Corolla, blusters about the sin of lust, declaring that "a prostitute can be had for a loaf of bread!" Percy perks up and says, "Really? Where? They're much more expensive where I go." Ward's Percy is a proud fraud, and it's fun to laugh at him.
Marrs has fewer funny moments as Lucius, the shy voice of reason, and his bit with the itch-producing plant withers on the vine, but he's good opposite Schultes. When Igneczi finally bursts onto the stage late in the second act as the missing Beebe, he delivers a crack-up monologue about life among the Warrior Monks and his escape through a Temple of Doom-like maze. Another latecomer character is Queen Victoria's Private Secretary (Jeff McGee), dispatched to express Her Majesty's displeasure at being slapped by Luigi. (It's his tribe's traditional way of greeting friends.)
The production looks swell-egant on designer Clare Floyd Devries' scenery, which spreads the club room out between paneled walls and furnishes it with oriental rugs, burnished leather chairs and mounted animal heads. Costumes by Michael Robinson reflect Victorian styles (pretty much) and match the burgundies and woodsy browns of the set. Prop designer Lynn Lovett adorns the club's corners and cubbyholes with historical artifacts, though it should be noted that the displayed head of King Tut is an anachronism in Victorian times. His tomb wasn't discovered until 1922. Maybe it's just there to test the audience. Sling a drink to those who spot the mistake. To science! To comedy! Too right.