‘The Explorer’s Club’ is a zany, but smartly written, farce

Theatre can be a serious tool for tackling serious subjects in an intriguing and thought-provoking way, and it’s at its best when it’s turning its eye on our society and showing us a mirror of ourselves. However, there are times when all you need is a good laugh. Luckily, Austin Playhouse is giving us just that, with “The Explorer’s Club”, Nell Benjamin’s smart and pitch-perfect farce, which is given a polished production under director Lara Toner, thanks in no small part to an uber-talented cast, made up of the some of the best comedic talent the city has to offer.

As “The Explorer’s Club” begins, we find them ready to bring in a new member, who’s just discovered a hither-to unknown tribe of natives. The only problem, is, she’s a women. With two of them ready to give presentations to the queen, and their bartender out of the commission, the Club is under a lot of pressure, and soon the Club finds themselves with the palace guards, Irish rebels, and a gang of angry monks on their doorstep. The way the play keeps elevating the action to a higher and higher pitch is its greatest strength, and when it reaches its peak, the laughs just don’t stop coming.

“The Explorer’s Club” is buoyed in no small way by the mass of braggadocio that is Brian Coughlin as Harry Percy. From the moment he appears on stage, Coughlin is difficult to keep your eyes off of, as his timber, his delivery, and especially his movement, all serve the humor. The way he reacts to the world around him, whether it’s showing off his masculinity or belittling those smarter than he is, creates one hilarious moment after another. Though in the wrong hands this character could become villainous, Coughlin brings such huge charm that it’s impossible to dislike him, even as he shows us his cowardice or vanity.

As Austin Playhouse has shown in the past, there’s not a better two-man team in town than David Stahl and Michael Stuart. They’re like a vaudevillian duo who have been brought forward through time to delight modern audiences. Here, they play a pair of zany zoologists, one who studies snakes, and one who studies guinea pigs (“they all said people who study snakes and people who study prey could never be friends!”). The two play off each perfectly, just as they have so many times before, perhaps to best affect in Austin Playhouse’s “The 39 Steps”. Stahl in particular plays the perfect straight man to many of Stuart’s over-the-top reactions, and whenever they’re on stage we can’t help but smile.

The real power of this play does not come from a single performance, however, but instead from how they play with each other. In particular, a few scenes involving the service of drinks brings some of the biggest laughs, as it involves acrobatic ability that impresses every time. Whether it’s J. Ben Wolfe’s native interacting with the stuffy British folks around him, the charming chemistry between lovebirds Claire Grasso and Aaron JOhnson, or the battle between monks, the Irish, and the British army, this play is full of such amazing moments that the cast just carries to greatness.

In the culinary diet that is the theatrical experience, sometimes you just want something sweet, light, and fun, and Austin Playhouse has provided just the bowl of chocolate mousse you need. Witty, frivolous, undeniably funny, yet also smartly observed, “The Explorer’s Club” is a fine farce expertly choreographed by director Toner, who brings together a whizzbang cast, who are giving their all to bring out the hilarity of Benjamin’s text. It’s far and away the funniest play I’ve seen this year, and a great way to continue a fine season for Austin Playhouse.

“The Explorer’s Club” is playing through May 1st at Austin Playhouse. For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit: austinplayhouse.com

Photo Courtesy of Jess Hughes

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