The most interesting character in Nell Benjamin’s clay-footed “The Explorers Club” on B Street Theatre’s MainStage is a blue-painted man who speaks no English. He’s called Luigi, as one of Benjamin’s dull jokes explains, and he’s something of native savant.
Played intently by the pliable John Lamb, Luigi clambers about and sets off the comedy’s funniest routine. As you can wonder if Benjamin pokes fun at indigenous people for being, you know, indigenous (they think spoons are mystical symbols – haha), what you also wonder is how this shell of a play became, you know, a play.
In an exclusive London men’s club in 1879, scientist Phyllida Spotte-Hume (Stephanie Altholz) is being nominated for inclusion into an all-male version of the Royal Society. The potential of that premise finds itself trampled beneath the feet of Benjamin’s stock characters, nonexistent plot and slight humor, which, it must be said, often seemed hysterical to the opening-night audience.
Spotte-Hume has discovered a tribe and lost city and brought Luigi back as evidence. His actual name is complicated to Western ears, but Spotte-Hume calls all her pets Luigi, so there you have it.
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The club’s acting president, botanist Lucius Fretway (Jason Kuykendall), hopes to bring Spotte-Hume into the club and has romantic designs on her as well. In an amorous overture, he names a flower after her, but its fragrance causes confusion, euphoria, coma and death. Spotte-Hume’s nomination is opposed by David Silberman’s Professor Sloane, a Bible-quoting “archaeo-theologist” who believes that the Irish may be the lost tribes of Israel.
Fretway has a rival for Spotte-Hume in the blustery Harry Percy (David Pierini), an explorer who has “discovered” the East Pole. Other members of the club include Professor Cope (Allen McKelvey), who carries a cobra named Rosie around his neck, and mousy Professor Walling (Greg Alexander), who is never without a caged guinea pig.
Eccentricities aside, the play’s first act rarely sparked with any type of wit. The second half picks up with deft physical humor once Luigi becomes the club’s bartender. Director Buck Busfield milks the play’s best bit for all it’s worth.
At one point Spotte-Hume passes around the lost tribe’s food staple to the explorers. “They have hunted nearly all the animals to extinction,” she tells them, “and are forced to subsist on a jerky made of toad. The toad is poisonous. But most of the poison boils off when the toad is poached in urine.”
The men’s reactions are what you would expect, and that’s the most one can say about this production – it minimally fulfills expectations.
The Explorers Club
- What: Nell Benjamin’s comedy about a stuffy English men’s club in 1879 that is considering whether to admit a woman.
- When: Continues through July 26 at 6:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays; 2 p.m. Wednesdays and Sundays; 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays; 5 p.m. and 9 p.m. Saturdays.
- Where: B Street Theatre Mainstage, 2711 B St., Sacramento
- Tickets: $23-$35, $5 student rush
- Information: (916) 443-5300, www.bstreettheatre.org
- Time: One hour and 55 minutes, including one intermission