This two-hour show will keep you laughing and entertained with silly gags, physical comedy and spot-on wordplay.
In “The Explorers Club,” onstage at The Delaware Theatre Company through May 22, Tony-nominated playwright Nell Benjamin (“Legally Blonde: The Musical”) takes a gentle jab at various forms of exclusion and prejudice with a mix of humor and a touch of the absurd. And that makes the play’s message all the more potent.
As the story opens, it’s 1879 London and a club meeting is coming to order. President Harry Percy (Harry Smith) is away on a polar expedition, so botanist Lucius Fretway (Daniel Frederick) takes charge.
Fretway has a most radical suggestion: why not consider for membership the eminent cultural anthropologist Phyllida Spotte-Hume (Karen Peakes) for her recent discovery of the NaKong Tribe in the lost City of Pahatlabong.
A near-riot follows her arrival at this den of male privilege. An abomination, cries Professor Sloane (Dan Kern), resident sourpuss and self-described archeo-theologist who objects on gender grounds (“Your science is adequate but your sex is weak with sin and led astray with diverse lusts. No offense.).
Thankfully, Benjamin does not let this become a heavy-handed treatise on gender equality even though she and her distaff colleagues are painfully aware of the lack of gender parity in the theater. She’s too busy having fun with this cast of crazies, each of whom has his own brand of English eccentricity.
Professors Cope (Matt Tallman) studies guinea pigs and constantly carries his little charge with him in a cage. Professor Walling (Brian McCann) is an expert on snakes with a cobra wrapped around his arm. Fretway specializes in exotic plants with mind-altering capabilities, while Percy is on an eternal mission to find the East and West Poles.
Then there is Luigi (Dave Johnson)—the fruit of Spotte-Hume’s research—a half-naked native covered in blue body paint who speaks no English. (Think the Blue Man Group meets “Tarzan.”)
Eventually the guinea pig and the snake “cross paths.” Sloane manages to provoke a near-war with the Irish and the native triggers an international incident by giving Queen Victoria a slap in the face.
Key to the success of this delightfully daffy concoction is Bud Martin’s astute direction which allows every actor a turn in the spotlight. Even the smaller roles get their due, including Paul Nolan’s overwrought royal official and Griffin Stanton-Ameisen’s zany killer monk. (Stanton-Ameisen also doubles as the Irish Assassin.)
Daniel Frederick anchors the insanity with his charming turn as straight man Fretway. He has a worthy opponent in Smith’s comically bombastic but entirely clueless Percy. McCann and Tallman convey a genuine camaraderie, co-exiting with mutual respect despite living in a snake-eat-guinea pig-world.
The hero of the play is Karen Peakes who manages to light a fire under these puffed-up gents while maintaining a beguiling girlishness that captivates them.
“The Explorers Club” is unapologetically entertaining with lots of silly gags, physical comedy and spot-on wordplay, all kept in balance by Martin’s keen direction.
All the action takes place on Alexis Distler’s set that crosses a manor house with a natural history museum. (In his introductory comments, Martin quipped that he’d brought it over from the Wilmington Club.)
This is one production that will keep you laughing non-stop for two hours – which go by way too fast.