Jennifer Westfeldt Talks Traveling the Globe and Navigating a Man's World in The Explorers Club

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19 Jun 2013

Jennifer Westfeldt
Jennifer Westfeldt
Photo by Hayley Sparks

"Everybody does enjoy a little brandy now and then," Jennifer Westfeldt said while discussing The Explorers Club, the Manhattan Theatre Club world premiere, which officially opens June 20 at City Center. While the 21st-century actress, writer, director and producer can speak equitably of the after-dinner drink, the character she plays onstage is not permitted to enjoy a glass with her fellow explorers due to her sex. After petitioning to join the all-male society of scientists and explorers, she is told, "Welcome. Now get out. It's time for brandy and cigars."

A new play by Tony Award nominee Nell Benjamin (Legally Blonde) and directed by Marc Bruni, The Explorers Club is set in 1879, when the calm of a Royal Society-like enclave is shaken by the application of a female candidate, the accomplished explorer Phyllida Spotte-Hume, played by Westfeldt. Some of the male members, who are played by Brian Avers, Max Baker, Steven Boyer, Arnie Burton, Carson Elrod, David Furr, John McMartin and Lorenzo Pisoni, are strongly opposed to a woman joining their ranks, while others are greatly excited by it — although, not for professional reasons. One long-time member, played by McMartin, frequently refers to Phyllida as a "harlot" and a "temptation" and tells her, "Your science is adequate, but your sex is weak with sin and led astray with diverse lusts. No offense."

None is taken by Phyllida, even when she is banished from the room, and her character goes on to prove her incredible intelligence and ability to play with the boys — and even best them at their own game — while they all engage in some hilarious on-stage antics that include, but are not limited to, chasing after an escaped guinea pig, slapping the Queen of England and throwing back some specially crafted cocktails.

"I think it's so smart and funny, and to get the opportunity to do something that's kind of deliriously silly as this, but also about something, is exciting," Westfeldt said of the play. "The whole play is shining a light on every form of exclusion, and it's fun just to have the time of your life."

The exclusion Westfeldt cites is certainly experienced by her character onstage, and has been witnessed and experienced by Westfeldt herself, throughout her career, which has included work on television and film, as well as more than 25 Off-Broadway plays and a Tony-nominated turn on Broadway in the 2004 revival of Wonderful Town.

"It certainly spoke to me, because I think any woman trying to do something out of the ordinary or renegade or attempt to accomplish something that's outside the norm appeals to me," Westfeldt said. "I've certainly tried a few times in my career to do that. I think she [Phyllida] is way ahead of her time in this play. She feels like a more modern character – certainly more than the rest of the men."

Some of the ways Westfeldt has tried to do something out of the ordinary include the three independent feature films she has written and starred in: "Kissing Jessica Stein," "Ira & Abby" and "Friends With Kids," which she also directed and produced. Each of the films explored social trends Westfeldt had noticed amongst her friends during different times in her life.


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