By PAM HARBAUGH
For witty new comedy well done, you don’t get any better than Mad Cow Theatre’s exhilarating production of “The Explorers Club” — from scrumptious visual design to deliriously divine performances, this should be one heck of a hit.
This professional production at the Mad Cow is the regional premiere of “The Explorers Club.” Written by Nell Benjamin, the comedy was first produced two years ago at the Manhattan Theatre Club. Ms. Benjamin is quickly becoming a celebrated name in contemporary American theater; she co-wrote the award-winning score for “Legally Blonde, the Musical” and is working on stage adaptations of the movies “Dave” and “Mean Girls.”
The comedy is set in 1879 London in the bar of the stuffy, all-male Explorers Club where members enjoy impressing one another while raising their glasses in a sacred toast “To science!”
The story concerns earnest botanist Lucius Fretway who champions membership for a plucky female anthropologist, Phyllida Spotte-Hume, who has discovered a lost civilization which worships anything spoon-shaped. This is welcomed news, but the idea of a woman joining the club startles all, but none more so than self-righteous Professor Sloan, always quick to raise the Bible and state that women are the path to ruin. Indeed, into these civilized surrounds, Phyllida has brought a savage named Luigi who insults the Queen which prompts a full-scale stand off with the Royal Guard.
Director David Russell takes hold of this tasty farce and squeezes out every drop of slapstick, pointed understatement and smart comic reaction in whiz-bang rapid pacing — all creating a “crisp” production (that apt word comes courtesy an audience talk-back). But, oh my, what a brilliant cast do Mr. Russell’s bidding, all the while making the tightly choreographed frenzy look so easy.With his great profile and that little curly cue of hair worrying its way onto his forehead, Eric G. Pinder carves out a comic romantic soul to Oscar Wilde-an Fretway. The object of his love is Phyllida, played with exquisite comic restraint by Heather Leonardi. In fact, the only person who upstages Ms. Leonardi is Ms. Leonardi herself when she appears on stage as Countess Glamorgan, a woman who emits pickly silent laughs and who uses her bustle for wicked stage business fun.
As Sloan, Glenn J. Glover coats his elocution with syrupy grandiloquence (think Stewie in ‘Family Guy’) when he says: “Your science is adequate, but your sex is weak with sin and led astray with diverse lusts. No offense.” As hail-fellow-well-met explorer Harry Percy who has just returned from looking for the east pole, Simon Needham perfectly balances that inexplicable combination of misogynistic and heroic.
Then there are Kevin Zepf as snake lover Professor Cope, whose pet has eyes on a guinea pig owned by Professor Walling, a delightfully befuddled Dennis Enos. David Almeida is the dutiful Sir Bernard Humphries, the Queen’s emissary. Ross Neal plays both the lost explorer Beebe and an Irish Assassin upset that Prof. Sloan has called all of Ireland the lost tribe of Israel. And just wait for Ryan Gigliotti to go full bore when Luigi becomes a bartender.
For the background of this rococo plot, scenic designer William Elliott supplies a sumptutous, comfy English bar complete with a host of stage props including animals heads, bookcase, bar, a suit of armor, a world atlas. Throughout, little faux touches of animal pelts accentuate the members’ fearless characters (at least, those who actually go somewhere). Costume designer Marco T. Magno advances the detailed visuals with a wide array of wonderful period garb. And lighting/sound designer Michael Powers makes it all look so doggoned good.
This is Mad Cow Theatre at its best — not only new work, but good work, produced well and making audiences want to come back for more. You’ll be hearing of this one, no doubt.
P.S. Interestingly, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation commissioned Ms. Benjamin to write “The Explorers Club” as part of its ongoing initiative to “support the development of plays that address themes of math, science and technology and that depict scientists, mathematicians and engineers as major characters, aim to bridge the divide between the “two cultures,” science and the arts.” (Click here for more information on that initiative.)
SIDE O’ GRITS: “The Explorers Club” runs through Feb. 22 at the Mad Cow Theatre, 54 W. Church St., second floor, Orlando. It performs 7:30 p.m. Mondays (no performance Feb. 16), Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $24.25 to $36.75, handling charges may apply. Call 407.297.8788 or visit www.MadCowTheatre.com.