Nell Benjamin knows a thing or two about making heroines out of tall blondes. Back in 2007 she and her husband, Laurence O'Keefe, cowrote the music and lyrics for Legally Blonde The Musical, an unflaggingly enthusiastic expression of modern-day girl power, embodied by the bubbly young ingénue Laura Bell Bundy. Tony Award nominee and popular independent filmmaker Jennifer Westfeldt (best known for her films Kissing Jessica Stein and Friends with Kids) is Benjamin's newest muse. She portrays the 19th century British version of girl power as the brilliant explorer Phyllida Spotte-Hume in Benjamin's feminist farce, The Explorers Club, a Manhattan Theatre Club production now playing at NY City Center. Though Phyllida boasts about her discovery of a lost city populated by a species of blue men, the greatest discovery made during The Explorers Club is that Legally Blonde's pop musical numbers and schizophrenic dance routines were actually hiding an exceptionally talented comedic playwright.
The Explorers Club is set in 1879 London — in the midst of the city's industrial and economic boom — and follows members of the Explorers Club, a high-society group of scientists and explorers who dwell in a 19th century equivalent of a man cave. Tony Award winner Donyale Werle has designed a striking set, complete with beautifully upholstered Victorian furniture and a fully stocked wet bar. It is perfectly suited for its inhabitants who describe brandy and cigars as "the heart and soul of the British Empire." The atmosphere captures the excessive luxury customary of 19th century London's upper crust, while subtly reminding us of the excessive poverty that accompanied this era of economic growth, a fact over which these characters clearly lose little sleep.
Lorenzo Pisoni plays the Explorers Club president, a shy botanist appropriately named Lucius Fretway, who, to the shock and horror of his stodgy clubmates, wishes to admit the club's first female member, Phyllida Spotte-Hume (Westfeldt). Phyllida, having just discovered the lost city of Pahatlabong, has returned to London with one of its native blue-skinned members of the NaKong tribe who she has lovingly renamed Luigi (played by an impressive Carson Elrod, employing physical comedy that deserves high praise). Phyllida hopes that Luigi will help her win the approval of the club's (far less qualified) members including Professor Sloane (John McMartin), a Bible-quoting archeo-theologist; Professor Cope (Brian Avers), a herpetologist with an unnatural affinity for a snake named Rosie; Professor Walling (Steven Boyer), a zoologist who designs flawed experiments for guinea pigs; and Harry Percy (David Furr), a womanizing renegade explorer who searches for places that any intelligent human being could assume do not exist. However, Phyllida's campaign for approval among this crowd proves particularly difficult after Luigi physically assaults the Queen of England, causing a web of trouble for them all.
Westfeldt, like her character, holds her own as the only woman in this room of strong male actors. Though all of her castmates give outstanding performances (particularly Furr, whose casual smugness is perfectly British), she remains the most captivating individual onstage — a credit to both her performance and Anita Yavich's elegant costumes that highlight the strength of her physical presence. Lucius' feelings of infatuation for Phyllida make perfect sense as you, yourself, wait anxiously for her to return to the stage.
O'Keefe, who composed original music for the play, and director Marc Bruni, both of whom worked with Benjamin on Legally Blonde, have reunited for this project, though all three have left their valley girl sensibilities behind. Their feel for the art of camp, however, is still finely tuned. The pace at which Bruni moves the play forward nicely suits this style of comedy. While maintaining a steady rhythm, it sits in a pocket that still allows the humor (and the audience) to breathe. Benjamin's immensely intelligent script, however, can easily stand on its own two feet. Full of both wit and insight into the male-female power struggle of the past as well as the present, the play could be a first cousin of an Oscar Wilde comedy. It has the quintessential ensemble structure, the complex web of conflicts, and the improbably neat yet incredibly satisfying resolution.