By Jean Lowerison | Theater Review
Gentlemen’s clubs, British imperialism and sexism are just some of the topics spoofed in Nell Benjamin’s “The Explorers Club,” making its San Diego premiere through Sept. 24 at Lamb’s Players Theatre.
Picture the first scene: 1879 in the bar of London’s Explorers Club, where a group of scientists gather periodically to schmooze, brag about their latest discoveries and — oh, yes — indulge in their favorite pastime; brandy and cigars.
Professor Cope (Brian Mackey), herpetologist, “wears” an unusual neckpiece: Rosie, one of a newly discovered (and deadly) species of cobra, “named for my mother.”
Professor Walling, zoologist (Omri Schein), carries his favorite subject, Jane the guinea pig, around in her cage. He has taught Jane to open the latch on her cage to get the food outside.
And let’s not forget Paul Eggington’s Professor Sloane, an “archeo-theologist,” who clings to archeo notions like “Women are weak with sin and led astray with divers lusts.” His latest discovery: that the Lost Tribes of Israel settled in (wait for it) Ireland.
Cope and Walling are busy congratulating themselves about appointments they have with Queen Victoria in the morning when the acting president of the club, nervous Nelly Lucius Fretway (Fran Gercke), starts to tell them all about the new member he’s proposing.
Just then she arrives: anthropologist Phyllida Spotte-Hume (Jessica John), who has discovered the Lost City of Pahatlabong, thought until now to be mythical. As proof, she has brought Luigi (John Rosen), a member of the NaKong tribe with long, stringy blond hair and ugly, short brown plaid pants. His upper torso and legs (at least) are painted blue, and he causes not a little surprise with the traditional NaKong response to a proffered handshake.
Of course, it’s not Luigi’s appearance or behavior that causes the uproar. It’s the notion of adding a woman to this all-boys’ club. Taken as they all are by Phyllida’s loveliness and obvious credentials, Sloane can’t help muttering about the “evil nature of women,” and she still must win the vote. But since Phyllida also is to meet the Queen, Cope offers her a ride and the club agrees to consider her for membership.
Suddenly, the president of the group arrives, dripping in fur and snow. This is Harry Percy (a hilarious Ross Hellwig), who just returned from an expedition to the East Pole. Harry seems ready to give Phyllida his vote because “I do like thin women.”
Yes, it’s silly.
Playwright Benjamin (Tony-nominated for “Legally Blonde”) wrings all the laughs she can out of Britain’s imperialist, sexist past and all you need to do is sit back, forget about serious issues for a while and giggle.
Big points to Marty Burnett for a spectacular club set, which includes rugs (seven), a stuffed black bear, huge “ivory” tusks flanking the well-stocked bar, and two statues on either side. (Credit is given to the San Diego Natural History Museum, presumably for some of these items.) Jeanne Reith’s costumes are perfect as well.
This is a spot-on cast. John’s Phyllida is delightful, spunky and not a little annoyed that the guys shoo her out when it’s time for brandy and cigars.
Charles Evans, Jr. has a good time with two other characters, one of whom is an explorer turned murderous monk. And Brian Salmon is suitably sniffy as the Queen’s private secretary.
“The Explorers Club” was extended before it opened. You now have until Sept. 24 to see what goes on in this goofy British men’s club.