By BRIAN SCOTT LIPTON
Audiences walking into Manhattan Theatre Club's production of Nell Benjamin's uproarious farce The Explorers Club may believe they've come face-to-face with an exact replica of the 1879 London gentlemen's club where the play is set. But what they're actually witnessing is a carefully conceived mix of authenticity and inventiveness created by Tony Award-winning set designer Donyale Werle and director Marc Bruni.
The entire two-act play takes place in the titular all-male club, which is run by scatterbrained adventurer Harry Percy (David Furr), who has recently discovered the East Pole. When Harry's rival, timid botanist Lucius Fretway (Lorenzo Pisoni), proposes adding female scientist Phyllida Spotte-Hume (Jennifer Westfeldt) as a member, all hell breaks loose---especially after "Luigi" (Carson Elrod), the native she's brought back with her, slaps Queen Victoria.
"When we started working on the show last fall, Donyale brought all sorts of research about actual gentlemen's clubs of the era," says Bruni. "But what she found out is they were surprisingly sterile." So the pair decided to take some liberties, finding inspiration everywhere from the current New York branch of The Explorers Club to Werle's own Victorian house in Brooklyn. "If it wasn't a comedy, we might have felt the need to be more completely accurate," Werle says.
For example, there may be no club in the world that owns a giraffe-skin rug, but there's one on the floor at New York City Center Stage I, where the show is now in previews. "We decided we needed to show the offbeat sensibility of these particular explorers, and we wanted something that was just totally insane and impractical and which indicates the total lack of respect they had for foreign culture," Bruni says.
So Werle found a cowhide rug and had it cut into the shape of a giraffe and painted with spots. "Right after the first week of previews, though, some of the spots had to be re-dyed because they were coming up from being walked on," she notes with a laugh.
A similar sensibility resulted in the various portraits that are hung all around the multi-level set. "One of our earliest ideas was that we would see pictures of various past explorers on the verge of their imminent demise," Bruni says. "So all of us, including the actors, brainstormed in the rehearsal room about the various horrible causes of death that could happen. From that, we created these portraits where these men are putting on a brave face while those causes of death---polar bears, a shrinking block of ice, an erupting volcano---are just behind them in the background."
Werle wanted these portraits to look as 19th-century as possible, even while using 21st-century technology. "My colleague, Mary Olin Geiger, researched hundreds of paintings and photos of explorers from the period to make these," she says. "But they're computer-generated prints that have a special gel coating added on to give them the look of oil paintings."
Werle's attention to detail can be found throughout the set, from the real walrus skin mounted on the wall to the colorful labels found on the alcohol bottles on the center-stage bar (although many of the bottles themselves come from Pier 1 Imports).
The result of Werle's work, says Bruni, is the perfect space to execute his vision for Benjamin's play: "Donyale's attention to detail is so meticulous, which is one reason I wanted to work with her on this show. I literally had tears in my eye the first time I stepped onto this set. It's simply a thrilling environment to do comedy in."
Brian Scott Lipton is a writer based in New York City
Production photo by Joan Marcus. Portrait of explorer meeting his doom courtesy of Donyale Werle