First, a toast to many things: To Queen Victoria, cigars and brandy, the arrested development of the members of an exclusive men’s club (circa 1879), the savvy wiles of a lone female scientist, the shrewd adaptation of a South Pacific island native, the lunatic comic imagination of writer Nell Benjamin, and the unquestioned brilliance of director David H. Bell, who can not only make a sparkling cast of nine dance on a dime, but can choreograph an eye-popping chorus of cocktail glasses, too.
In short, here’s to “The Explorers Club,” Benjamin’s hilarious, sparklingly realized comedy, now in an effervescent production at Windy City Playhouse, the year-old Equity company whose spacious storefront is outfitted with cushy revolving chairs and an elaborate bar. (If you have yet to make its acquaintance, this show is the ideal place to start.)
‘THE EXPLORERS CLUB’ Highly recommended When: Open Where: Windy City Playhouse,3014 W. Irving Park Rd. Tickets: $25 – $55 Info:www.windycityplayhouse.com Run time: 2 hoursand 15 minutes, with one intermission
Benjamin, who co-wrote the music and lyrics for the Broadway musical, “Legally Blonde,” demonstrates that she is far brainier and clever than that show might suggest. Her satirical flair is evident in every moment of this wildly zany comedy that deals with everything from sexism, colonialism and national identity, to the 10 lost tribes of Israel and the Irish-English rift. And yes, there also is that eternal question, “What do women want?” A mix of high physical and verbal comedy, it’s a show that will have you laughing all along the way.
The premise is pure Victorian nuttiness, and plays out in the exclusive London gentleman’s club of the title. Lucius (a winningly hapless Alex Goodrich), is a botanist – a sweet, romantic fellow who women might favor as a brother more than a lover. A forward-thinking soul in the midst of a regressive lot, he has proposed club membership for the first woman – Phyllida (the sensational Cristina Panfilio, who also flips brilliantly into playing Phyllida’s snooty sister, with an accent best described as Valley Girl-meets-Sloane Square). A tremendously adventurous anthropologist, Phyllida has researched a lost tribe in the South Pacific, and even brought back one of the “natives,” who she has dubbed Luigi (Wesley Daniel, a dancer-acrobat of superb grace and wicked comic chops). A nearly naked chap covered with body paint, his audience with the Queen proves a disaster, but (in some of the show’s most stellar moments) he demonstrates quite a talent for bartending.
Of course Lucius has a serious crush on Phyllida, in addition to admiring her scientific achievements. But not surprisingly his proposal meets with gasps of horror and terror by his loony colleagues: Professor Cope (Zack Shornick), who is obsessed with a deadly species of cobra named “Rosie” (in honor of his mother); Professor Walling (Matt Browning) , whose object of affection is a fuzzy rodent he carries around in a little cage; and Professor Sloane (Dan Rodden), a Biblical anthropologist whose wacky theory about the 10 lost tribes of Israel landing in Ireland causes considerable political chaos.
None of these three men are threats to Lucius’ amorous longings. But then, the ridiculously pompous explorer, Harry Percy (Ryan Imhoff), returns from what he claims is his discovery of the East Pole, having left the corpses of his fellow explorers behind. And he now sets his sights on Phyllida, too.
Bell’s direction sets everyone and everything in this show into perpetual motion so the whole thing (whether a kiss, a fight or a snakebite) unfolds like one great organically growing wall of ivy. And his actors (including Graham Emmons as the Queen’s emissary and an Irish rebel), capture the rhythm with great panache.
Scott Davis’ elaborate set, complete with taxidermy trophies and a grand bar, is perfection, as are Jeremy W. Floyd’s gem-tone smoking jacket costumes, Lee Fiskness’ lighting and Jeffrey Levin’s sound design.
It would be impossible to watch this play without thinking of the recent dust-up involving the Nobel laureate and esteemed British biochemist, Tim Hunt, who said: “Let me tell you about my trouble with girls. Three things happen when they are in the lab: You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them, they cry.”
Alas, everything old is new again. And laughter is often the best response.