There was once a time when the wider world still contained pockets of the unknown, terra incognita untouched by Western man or Google Maps. Organizations like the Royal Geographical Society existed to provide a hub for the brave (and/or stupid) men's men who ventured into the wilderness looking for glory, exploitable societies, and a more complete cartography. The new Off Broadway play The Explorers Club playing through July 21 at the Manhattan Theatre Club uses such an organization as the setting for an antic farce involving, among many other things, deadly cobras, warrior monks, a blue-painted aboriginal, twin sisters, a horde of Irishmen, dirigibles, quick-growing plants, and Queen Victoria.
Jennifer Westfeldt (known most recently for writing, directing, and starring in the comedy film Friends With Kids) plays Phyllida Spotte-Hume, a scientist who has just returned from a treacherous expedition in the late 19th century and hopes to become the London club's first female member. Her application is met with scorn by the pious Professor Sloane (John McMartin), who fears the temptress ways of all women, and with glee by bumbling botanist Lucius (Lorenzo Pisoni) and the empty-headed but virile explorer Percy (David Furr), who both spar for her affections. Complicating matters is the Avatar-hued native (Carson Elrod) she's brought in tow.
While much of the comedy in Nell Benjamin's (Legally Blonde) script is broader than a freeway, the jokes come barreling fast and furious. Early scenes feel a bit too much like an extended Saturday Night Live sketch, but, like most farces, the effect is cumulative. By the time all the various comic strands start weaving together in the second act, the silliness has gotten contagious.
The pitter-patter dialogue (and winkingly simplistic props) are also aided by some impressive physical comedy, including some eyebrow-raising acrobatics with tumblers of whiskey slid across (and off) a bar. Director Marc Bruni keeps everything whizzing by speedily, and the set, by designer Donyale Werle, is as stuffed as the many taxidermied specimens lining its walls. The stodgy environs serve as a nice counterpoint to the outrageous plot developments and hyperactive character comedy. Unlike the club's members, the play isn't really blazing any new trails into unexplored territory, but at least it's following the right path. B+
(Tickets: nycitycenter.org or 212-581-1212)