by Nell Benjamin
Directed by Marc Bruni
Manhattan Theatre Club
at City Center, West 55th Street

by William Shakespeare
Directed by Daniel Sullivan
Dramaturg: Robert Blackner
Delacorte Theatre in Central Pask
A Production of the Joseph Papp-Public Theater

Reviewed by David Spencer

Part screwball comedy, part farce, part comedy-of-manners, part satire The Explorers Club by Nell Benjamin is also part-derivative and part-original. Its derivative aspects are the ones that maaayyyy incur anything from a mild reluctance (which I felt) to a stony resistance (some other notices, or so I’m told), simply because the sophisticated, comedy-savvy viewer can only sigh at tropes like the young, callow hero in love with the plucky girl to whom he’s too shy to make an advance—which you’l find here in the person of earnest Professor Cope (Brian Avers) and daring female explorer Phyllida Spotte-Hume (Jennifer Westfeldt). But once those things are established and you allow yourself to hop past them—assuming you can, and I think you should—Ms. Benjamin’s send-up of male enclaves, in this case an Explorers Club set in 1879 London, is an agreeably bouncy ride and as cute as a bunny (despite all the more ferocious stuffed animal heads adorning the walls). She manages to comment on male chauvinism without making the play a feminist tract, to lampoon both primitive notions of science as well as, er, primitives without losing affection for her characters, and the silliness rituals of manly-male bonding without likewise asserting that male bonding itself is silly.

                        And though she doesn’t add too much fresh to the young-potential-lovers characters, she manages delightful spins on all the others—most particularly a deist (John McMartin) whose basic stance is that “God invented science and God wrote the Bible,” all his logic deriving therefrom; and a chest-thumping expeditioner (David Furr, who enters wearing one) who ought to be as famous for how many cohorts he loses along the way as the expeditions on which they joined him. Oh, and a native (Carson Elrod), who is both very blue (I don’t mean sad) and weirdly adaptive. Add to this an increasingly dexterous bit o comedy business that escalates, each time it is rendered, to include more and more of the cast, and you have…well, what, really. Nothing much except an entertainment that’s absolutely perfect for the Summer season and, come to think of it, for the family too, if the kids can keep up with a certain level of verbal fencing.

                        Basically, The Explorer’s Club delivers very assured comedy writing, supported by expert comedy acting (others are Max Baker, Steven Boyer, Arnie Burton and Lorenzo Pisoni) and comedy direction (Marc Bruni) that balances Swiss-watch physical timing with unforced, easy-lob verbal delivery. It seems churlish to nitpick in the face of all that.


Director Daniel Sullivan’s Shakespeare in the (Public Theater) Park rendition of The Comedy of Errors is a go at putting the Bard through a screwball filter. Not that the plays plot needs help in being a basically silly confection; but comedy storytelling moved slower in Shakespeare’s day, and in this switchemup about two partnered sets of separated twins (both played expertly by Hamish Linklater and Jesse Tyler Ferguson), the original, unabridged text takes time to methodically dramatize every step of the comic complication. Whereas this version, set in a kind of flapper-era, Chicago-like Ephesus, complete with gangster and local accents, takes its cue from screenwriting technique; starting as late into each comic complication as possible that will allow the audience to intuit all that came before—reducing it all to 90 minutes, no ‘mish. It’s a bold move, and it sometimes teeters on the brink of too-fast-to-understand, since the text doesn’t always cooperate cleanly, but for the most part a balance is maintained, even if the results are a bit Comedy of Errors Lite. (It’s impossible to know how much credited dramaturg Robert Blacker had to do with the cutting and reshaping, but since it’s the kind of thing a Shakespearean dramaturg ought to be on hand for, let’s flag his participation.)

                        The cast is game and able, the gimmick of the setting is agreeable and if it isn’t always comedy gold, it’s comedy-good-enough for a romp beneath the stars.

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