You don’t have to be British to lose your composure and howl with laughter at “The Explorers,” a witty spoof of all those bold Victorian adventurers who ravaged foreign lands and annihilated indigenous cultures in the name of science. Scribe Nell Benjamin (Tony nommed for “Legally Blonde”) sets up these arrogant Empire builders for ridicule by proposing a buccaneering female for membership in their all-boys club. Helmer Marc Bruni (“Old Jews Telling Jokes”) mows down these poseurs with a sterling cast of thespians who can deliver an idiotic line with an elegant sneer and perfect enunciation.
The Explorers Club has become something of a laughing stock in 1879, when the play opens in London, largely because of its appallingly awful bartender. To further besmirch the club’s reputation, its acting president, the botanist Lucius Fretway (Lorenzo Pisoni), has proposed a famous lady explorer (and the woman he secretly loves) for membership.
It’s hard to imagine any woman wanting to spend time in this clubroom, which Donyale Werle has designed in the same faux-attic style as her previous triumph, “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.” Although the leather chairs, burnished woods and luxurious carpets define it as a manly room, the stuffed animals, mounted trophies, heroic paintings, and big-game hunting gear that crowd every inch of wall space appear to be the work of adolescent boys run amok.
But Phyllida Spotte-Hume (Jennifer Westfeldt) is no ordinary woman, and this plucky adventuress does, very much, want to be welcomed into this society. A celebrated anthropologist, she has discovered a legendary Lost City (“the worst place on earth”) and brought back a cute, extremely fit native specimen she has named Luigi (Carson Elrod, outlandishly costumed by Anita Yavich and painted a lovely shade of blue).
Awed by her accomplishments, not to mention her beauty (and exquisite diction), the zoologist Professor Walling (Steven Boyer, carrying a caged guinea pig) and the herpetologist Professor Cope (Brian Avers, wearing a snake around his neck) immediately accept Phyllida. But Professor Sloane, an “archeo-theologist” played with delicious deadpan drollery by John McMartin, will allow no daughter of Eve to defile the club.
“Your sex is weak with sin and led astray with divers lusts — no offense,” he informs Phyllida in the dry-as-dust tone of the sex that has no doubts about its God-given superiority.
Phyllida takes the criticism in her stride (“No offense taken,” she assures the churchman-scientist). But the return of the dashing and breathtakingly stupid Harry Percy (David Furr, swathed in animal skins but too committed to his art to crack up and roll around on the floor) from a successful expedition to the East Pole (“It does exist,” he insists) presents another complication. The intrepid explorer will entertain the notion of allowing Phyllida into the club, but only if she knows her place, which is in another room while the menfolk indulge their sacred (not to say homoerotic) ritual of brandy and cigars.
Benjamin has a quick mind, an agile wit and terrific comic timing. But her resolution of all the farcical obstacles to Phyllida’s membership proves too dryly methodical and much too busy. The satiric intent of the comedy is better served in the first act, when the characters feel free to deliver their uninhibited, ignorant and wonderfully politically incorrect views on Imperial Great Britain’s “scientific” conquest of land, sea, air, outer space, foreign cultures, native species — and women.