Ann Stoner, Jimmy Dee Arnold, Adam Peterson, Charles Sutherland, Christopher Tiffany, and Thomas Underwood in “The Explorers Club” photo Lisa Gavan
Men’s clubs of late 1800’s London display their wackier side in Nell Benjamin’s farce “The Explorers Club” (Broadway production 2013) at Ann Arbor Civic Theatre which opened last night and runs through January 14th at the Arthur Miller Theater.
At its core, her play (well-directed by Brodie H Brockie and acted by a fine all-around cast) tackles the subject of allowing a woman to join a men’s adventurer’s club because of her discovery of a new native tribe and her presentation of one of their natives to the Queen. You can guess how that goes. It’s a setup that never would have happened in England at that historical time, but then, neither would escaping in a airship that she builds one morning at her family’s house. That is the sort of evening you are in for, and it is funny, wacky, and fast-paced.
Brockie makes sure that the proceedings never dissolve into slap-stick but remain firmly grounded in witty banter and visual jokes — the best of which are two sequences of drink-serving by newly appointed native bartender (an absolutely hilarious Jimmy Dee Arnold) which involves lots of glass-flinging and catching; and a cigar-smoking sequence in which botanist Lucius realizes long before the others that perhaps his self-made cigars have a touch too much, um, shall we call it organic content.
It is all set on Patrick Johnson’s gorgeous set, one of the finest I have seen at the Arthur Miller, which itself has been reformulated in a semi-proscenium format (though not the same as the last time they used a proscenium format). Its a rare chance to see a show at the theater that is not in thrust-format. Everyone looks great in Jamee and Abigail Zielke’s costumes and Brice O’Neal’s lighting.
The cast is very good indeed, and their timing and shenanigans demonstrate a nice interplay of individual characters and ensemble interaction. While everyone is strong, the aforementioned Jimmy Dee Arnold and bit-part-chew-the-scenery Patrick Johnson in the later goings of the play are standouts. Adam Peterson plays Lucius, the club president; Jared Hoffert is newly returned from expedition Harry Percy; Ann Stoner plays Phllida; Tom Underwood plays snake-toting Cope while Christopher Tiffany plays guinea-pig toting Walling; Charles Sutherland is bible-thumping Sloane and Larry Rusinsky plays the Queen’s representative Sir Bernard Humphries (I told you that presentation of the native to the Queen doesn’t go well).
There are some problems inherent to the play, so just turn off your thinking cap and enjoy the antics of these buffoons (not the least of which is a sequence in which the entire group heads off to their visit with the queen, the remaining cast have what seems like a page of dialogue, before the entire group returns from their disastrous visit minutes later). Let’s just call that writers liberty and enjoy what it is — a wacky almost Monty-Pythonish look at this Club — one which you will be sworn into anyway at the start of the show by director Brockie, so you might as well go along with the flow.
It’s a very funny theatrical evening – well done – and well played, Ann Arbor Civic Theater. “Your Drink, Sir!”
“The Explorers Club” continues at Ann Arbor Civic Theatre through January 14th. a2ct.org/tickets or 734-971-2228, or available at the door.
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