Jennifer Westfeldt Talks Traveling the Globe and Navigating a Man's World in The Explorers Club
By Carey Purcell
"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.
"I would get fixated on all of these examples around me. When an idea or trend or a pattern I'm seeing in my world, in my friend group, keeps bubbling up, and I can't stop thinking about it, I feel like I have to find some artistic way to document it," she said, referring to her three films as "my artistic attempt to make sense of what I was watching around me."
Some of what has happened around Westfeldt, and a change she hopes will continue to happen, is an increased number of women in leadership roles in the arts. A 2008-09 survey of New York's larger nonprofit theatres indicated that they produced four plays by male writers for every one by a woman, and Pam MacKinnon and Diane Paulus' recent wins at the Tony Awards marked only the second time two women had taken home the awards for Best Direction of a Play and Musical.
"I think it's happening in theatre as well as film; I think we're hopefully going to see more and more directors," Westfeldt said. "I think women can do anything, and that's being proven again and again."
Ironically, when Westfeldt first read the script for The Explorers Club, she didn't realize it was written by a woman. Benjamin, who received a Master's degree in women's studies from Trinity College, University of Dublin, has also worked on musical adaptations of female-focused books like "Sarah, Plain and Tall" and "Because of Winn-Dixie."
"I just assumed it was written by an old British man," Westfeldt said. "I looked at the title page and thought, 'Neil Bejamin,' and I pictured some 65-year-old man writing in his smoking jacket. Then when I found out it was this young American woman who had written this, I was so impressed…I always love to find work that's also about something or trying to be about something, and I think this certainly is trying to lampoon and shine a light on bias."
Finding work that addresses important themes is crucial to Westfeldt, who said she feels restless if she goes for a long period of time without performing onstage. She mentioned The Baker's Wife in Into the Woods, Anna in The King and I, Amalia in She Loves Me, as well as Hermione in The Winter's Tale as some roles she would like to play in the future.
She spoke highly of her fellow actors, of whom she is the only woman, saying, "I feel so humbled. They're the most talented, game, funny, generous group."
The ensemble of actors create some extremely comedic moments onstage; Westfeldt said she was unable to keep a straight face throughout when rehearsing. She feared that, during one scene when her character has fainted and is lying on a couch, the audience would see her laughing into the pillows.
"All of these guys went to drama school and had clown class," she said of her castmates, who she described as "jaw-droppingly" gifted physical comedians.
Delivering a message through comedy is a technique Westfeldt appreciates; she described "The Daily Show," "The Colbert Report" and "Real Time with Bill Maher" as the "triumvirate" of news sources. She said the same technique is utilized in The Explorers Club, whose comedy contributes to the impact of the play's message. "You can experience it as a purely comedic romp and delight, which I think it is, but actually we're talking about some serious topics underneath that. This is absolutely hysterical and actually really about something. That duality is such a gift to be a part of and to watch and to experience."
One of the themes of The Explorers Club that still felt relevant to Westfeldt was that of women being stigmatized to their gender and the continuing lack of progress in some areas of the world.
"The whole thread of rape comments during the election — what year are we in?" she said. "It's really true that as much progress that we think we're making and have made, there are many, many things that happen in a daily way that remind you of how certain parts of the country and certain people are not progressive."
Despite those attitudes, Westfeldt is hopeful for more change taking place in the future.
"More and more women are really trying to make their own rules," she said. "And the more women who have succeeded in this way, the more women who will succeed in this way... I think there's a wave we're riding that I hope just continues to soar."
As for enjoying some brandy and cigars herself?
"Between two shows it would be tricky," she said. "But I'll meet you after!"
The Explorers Club runs through July 21. New York City Center Box Office is at 131 W. 55th Street. For tickets, call CityTix at (212) 581-1212 or visit nycitycenter.org. For more information on MTC, visit ManahattanTheatreClub.com.
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