BWW Interview: David Furr's Expedition to Laughter

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THE EXPLORERS CLUB may be a new play by Nell Benjamin, but don't be surprised if it reminds you of an old Marx Brothers movie or a classic Monty Python skit, says David Furr, who plays Harry Percy, the club's stuffy, somewhat dense president.

"I think it's a wonderfully good comedy that touches the pleasure button for all audiences," Furr said of the play, which takes place in 1879 London, when men were men and their clubs were off limits to women.

"There's something familiar about it, especially the British humor," he said. The play centers on a potential new member - a (gasp!) woman - who threatens to upset the old-boys-only network. The explorer woman, played by Jennifer Westfeldt, proves her case for membership in over-the-top ways that deliver hearty laughs.

The shenanigans take place in a typically stuffy club's trophy room teeming with artifacts like a giraffe rug, stuffed bear, walrus and an eclectic assortment of dead animals hanging on the walls. The dark décor includes a sturdy wooden bar flanked by tusks, a leather couch and a free-standing globe. It also serves as staging ground for some creative glass tossing.

The woman explorer in question is Phyllida Spotte-Hume, who has returned from her latest adventure with a prime specimen whom she has named Luigi (Carson Elrod) - a tribesman from a remote land who is painted blue and manages to upset, and finally win over, the staid upper crust. There's also an Irish uprising, fast-growing plants that have a curious effect when smoked, and general mayhem. All in good fun, of course.

"Harry Percy as president likes to demonstrate leadership skills, but in reality he has no leadership skills," Furr said. "He knows how to play the role and he lets the members give him the leadership role, but they're as clueless as he is." Percy is a deep-voiced comic foil who manages to appear simultaneously assertive and flummoxed.

"His moral code is trumped by things like brandy and cigars and women, or whatever is most important to him at the time," Furr said. "But, as you'll see in the play, he may switch those morals at any time." His character plays the fool throughout the unfolding story, but audiences don't hate him because he's too funny and thick-headed, he added.

"When I first read the play there was something about the character that made a lot of sense to me." Furr said he understood what Benjamin intended in her script, "and I didn't have to think about it so much because the guy is so much in the moment. Whatever's happening in the moment is what he reacts to.

"One minute he cares about Luigi and is trying to protect him, the other minute he's worried about the other members of the club overriding him," said Furr.

"I like Luigi so much because he's so much fun that I simply get out of his way and watch him do all these amazing physical bits," Furr said. "I think my watching Monty Python and Eddie Izzard and other great British comics gave me a terrific appreciation of this physical comedy."

Furr also credits Dudley Moore, Rowan Atkinson and even the Beatles' humorous interviews for inspiring him to go for the funny bone in this wacky play with a message: Let women join clubs!

Furr concedes that he has a few traits in common with his misogynistic alter ego. "Well, we're both 6-foot-1 and have a big mustache-so I don't have to worry about that physicality. And the lines let me express such bravado and assurance, even when they are absolutely all wrong. So all I have to do is believe what I'm saying at any given moment," he said.

"One line I love is when I say that women 'get these little whims, which is why we call them women.' That line seems to hit everyone pretty well each night and it gets hearty laughs," he said.

Furr has a theory about why this play has been so lovingly embraced by audiences. "Mostly because it's being played straight. I like the idea that my character is not so eager to fight battles, even though he's capable. It's either cowardice or simply that he can't be bothered to go to war as it would be highly inconvenient.

"I suppose you could call him a little self-centered," he said. "Percy is none too keen to allow a woman into the club for many reasons. He wants to secure his place in history as the finest gentleman explorer of all time, and he keeps running up against obstacles all the time."

A riotously funny bit involves Luigi taking over as a bartender and putting his unique spin on things. Literally. Controlled chaos ensues.

"Luigi pours six glasses of brandy in the first scene and was given more lines to deliver at the same time, to squeeze more funny out of the bit," Furr said. "We went for laughs, not smiles."

"The really nice thing about this play is there's always a favorite moment coming up. From the top of Act 2, the fun continues to build and when we're all on the sofa, crammed together it feels like we're part of a troupe - it's very Marx Brothers, it's so much fun," he said.

"There's a certain amount of anarchy throughout the comedy," Furr said. "Sometimes it reminds me of those old Warner Brothers cartoons where nobody ever gets hurt. Those cartoons exposed us all to great vaudeville routines. Yes, we've got a blue guy, there are drinks being tossed all over the place," he added. And when you get down to it, "funny is funny."

THE EXPLORERS CLUB is playing at Manhattan Theatre Club, 131 W. 55th Street through August 4.

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