Those of you who read my previous review for She Loves Me will recall my note that a high quality production can make a bad script enjoyable. Furthermore, those of you who have attended a production at the Austin Playhouse know of their production values. This occurred to me instantly when reading the brief plot synopsis given for The Explorers Club in which it mentioned a woman trying to enter an all-male club. Full disclosure, I was worried by that snippet of plot. I feared the script at hand would amount to no more than a roundabout moral about how women are equal to men, and how we could all be a little wiser. True, gender inequality is a tragic reality, but I wished to be spared this familiar plot thread. Thankfully, The Explorers Club avoids over-inundating us with social preaching and instead focuses more on keeping the audience entertained.
The Explorers Club by Nell Benjamin is a comedy that tells of a London club for gentlemanly world explorers who honor “Science” above all else. At their annual meeting, they consider allowing a well-qualified female explorer into their ranks. However they’re quickly met with disagreement amongs the members, the return of the club’s grandiose president, a native of a foreign jungle tribe with almost no grasp of English, a love triangle, exotic animals, and more.
As always, the Austin Playhouse team utilized its resources to make a gorgeous production design-wise. Mike Toner’s set was gorgeously detailed in creating a refined yet pompous atmosphere for the egos onstage (as well as being believably British). Further credit to the design team belongs to costume design Buffy Manners, for the characterization the costumers brought to each role without seeming ostentatious. Particularly, the design for Luigi (the foreign tribesman) was wild enough to be immediately affecting and amusing, but not so ridiculous that you couldn’t take the character seriously.
The most notable performance of the production has to be J. Ben Wolfe as the aforementioned Luigi. As the stock character of “lost tribesman brought to the Western world” he brings energy and slapstick to the room that helps shake up the mostly stuffy, British cast. True, most of his characters gags are ones you’ve seen before in one show or another, but the inherent joy of physical comedy is certainly found in his performance. Other notable performances came from Brian Coughlin as the unscrupulous, boisterous, and cocky president of the club, Harry Percy, and David Stahl as the snake-loving Professor Cope (who spends most of the play with a snake wrapped around him. Similar to Wolfe, Coughlin is someone who dominates the stage when present. Meanwhile, Stahl’s unwitting Cope offers some good laughs as he often struggles to keep up with some of the other characters (and continually troubled by charades). Troubles from the cast came sometimes from Michael Stuart (Professor Walling) who was decent much of the time, but had a habit of slowing the momentum of some scenes on occasion. Though Aaron Johnson (Lucius Fretway) gave the weakest performance of the cast. It’s understandable given that the character of Fretway is meant to be the straight man in a comedy who finds himself in a room full of wacky personalities, but he just couldn’t muster the energy to keep up with the rest of the cast. I admit this could simply be a matter of juxtaposing Johnson’s character among the others, but the end result still felt lackluster.
In regards to my original concerns about the plot, the story does spend some time on whether or not a woman should be allowed into a gentleman’s club, but thankfully most of the characters immediately seem fine with it, considering her talents. Most of the plot focuses on the interwoven calamities caused in part by each of the characters, and how they feed into one another’s troubles. There are a few scenes that felt superfluous, such as a scene late in the play in which the plot abruptly stops to introduce a new character for about 10-minutes before continuing. Of course, this being a screwball comedy, the play doesn’t ride on the plot but on individual moments and recurring gags, and this play is ripe with recurring gags which are present enough to be remembered but not around so much as to become stale.
The Explorers Club isn’t anything new. True there are jokes that feel fresh, but for the most part it fits the expected role of screwball comedy with occasional bouts of slapstick. It’s a fun little show. Despite its plot synopsis, it doesn’t get bogged down with shouting morals at the audience, which always feels out of place in comedies as it is. True, as Moliere wrote, comedy is meant to correct human folly through laughter, but the key word there is laughter. You have to laugh or else the whole affair becomes dreary and uncomfortable. But you will laugh at The Explorers Club, because the Austin Playhouse has taken the effort to make it a quality production.
The Explorers Club continues playing at the Austin Playhouse every Thursday through Saturday at 8pm and Sundays at 5pm until May 1st.