“Exploring is dangerous business,” barks Harry Percy in Nell Benjamin’s new comedy, at Manhattan Theatre Club. But the risks of reaching one of the unmapped poles, as Sir Harry claims to have done, or of discovering a lost civilisation, the accomplishment of Phyllida Spotte-Hume, whom Sir Harry fancies, are nothing compared to what’s required of the nine actors in this exuberant piece of neo-Victorian piffle.
They must rush up and down stairs, expire and bounce back to life, and catch the cocktails that the barman at their London scientific society, the Explorers Club, hurls toward them. The play takes place at the club in 1879, when, as James Morris tells us in Pax Britannica, “the thirsty Empire of the British” was at its apogee. It was also an era, notes Morris, when “the dangers of contaminating native peoples with alcohol were always alive in the evangelist mind.”
The “noble savage” that Phyllida has brought back to London as Exhibit A in her bid to be the first female member of the Explorers, however, has not only been contaminated: he’s serving the drinks. The blue-skinned native has been pressed into service in order to conceal his identity from Sir Bernard Humphries, Queen Victoria’s private secretary.
Humphries has thundered in to the Explorers – a man-cave of burled wood, stuffed animals and a hanging plant or two – in search of the savage. When presented at court, Luigi slapped the monarch, slapping being the standard greeting of his tribe, and war has been declared.
Playwright Benjamin, best known for co-writing the music and lyrics of the musical Legally Blonde, may have authored the new play in part to highlight the obstacles faced by Victorian explorers such as Isabella Bird. But Phyllida, portrayed by Jennifer Westfeldt, seems less hampered than pampered: she has a countess sister, her own dirigible, and is being wooed both by the dashing Sir Harry and by a bumbling botanist called Lucius Fretway.
The chief pleasure in this relatively brief two-act evening, directed by Marc Bruni, lies not in any feminist reclamation but in the old-fashioned delights of knockabout farce. Especially adept at the pratfalls are the Hugh Laurie-ish David Furr as Percy and the Hugh Grant-ish Lorenzo Pisoni as Fretway. Some of the ensemble’s timing lacks precision, and the Explorers’ London rival would never be called the National Geographic Society (Royal Geographical, if you please). Otherwise: The Explorers Club is walloping good fun.