What lies along the bus route from Syracuse to Schenectady? In the Public Theater’s cheerful Comedy of Errors—now playing in Central Park—it’s Ephesus, town of endlessly confused identities, cigar-puffing mafiosi, and the occasional flying baloney. Shakespeare’s Roman-inspired comedy, as imagined by Daniel Sullivan, plays out in high ’30s style, amid rosy-brick buildings evoking midcentury New York, and punctuated by acrobatic feats of swing dancing. It’s a charming combination.
Twin brothers Antipholus (both played by Hamish Linklater) and their servants, the equally identical brothers Dromio (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), were separated as babies by an eerily egalitarian shipwreck: Each Antipholus wound up with his own Dromio to boss around. Now, as grown-ups, the Syracusan pair seeks their long-lost doppelgangers. Soon, all four twins (or rather, two dexterous actors) are bopping around Ephesus, fetching the wrong props, dining with the wrong wives, and barking orders at the wrong servants. Their dad’s also nearby—under a death sentence for being a Syracusan in Ephesus—and their mom might be, too, in nunnish disguise. (The family is surely in the running for holding the most improbable reunion in literature.) Sullivan keeps these escapades to a crisp 90 minutes. Linklater and Ferguson render the wordplay delightfully dry, and the trench-coated mobsters guarding Syracuse—doofy as they are—add a much-needed hint of danger.
With so much mistaken-identity fodder in Shakespeare’s comic canon, it’s tempting to wonder what’s inspiring about The Comedy of Errors, the lightest of the bunch. This production, with its efficient humor and emphasis on sameness—each pair of brothers is just one guy with a lot of entrances and exits—suggests the shallowness of identities of all kinds. Despite the maniacal pratfalls, there are serious questions hidden here.
Globe-trotting and identity confusion also abound in Nell Benjamin’s The Explorers Club (now at MTC)—a Victorian-style farce that, despite being new, feels far fustier than Shakespeare. Here, a venerable London society—its headquarters crammed with taxidermy and exotic carvings—grapples with some challenges to institutional precedent. One member has located the lost tribes of Israel (hint: Irish jokes ahead), while another’s just pinpointed the elusive “East Pole.” But this is nothing compared to the shock delivered by accomplished scientist Phyllida Spotte-Hume (Jennifer Westfeldt), who boldly petitions for membership—despite being female.
Spotte-Hume bolsters her application with a specimen from her newly discovered “lost city”: a native she’s dubbed Luigi (Carson Elrod), who’s blue-chested, be-feathered, and (seemingly) docile, perfect for the scientists’ presentation to Queen Victoria. Distressingly, though, the palace visit devolves into mayhem: Her Majesty is slapped, a cobra escapes, and a beloved guinea pig meets its doom. Soon, the club is besieged by a menacing melange of Irish-slash-Jews, the British army, and decapitation-happy Eastern monks. Only a well-stirred round of cocktails can put things right; luckily, Luigi’s discovered a last-minute flair for mixology.
If only Benjamin had a similar flair for farce. There are quips, quivering mustaches, and period Britishisms, but the overall effect combines a stodgy premise with a casually off-color tone. Are we really so advanced that feminism is a quaint concern of yesteryear—and what about poor Luigi, whose treatment by Benjamin isn’t self-aware enough to make up for being baldly tasteless? This would matter less if The Explorers Club traversed new territory or offered genuine amusement; as is, it’s as stale as the stuffed walrus adorning the club’s wall.