Volume 78 - Number 49 / May 13 - 19 , 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933


Theater

THE PHILANTHROPIST
Written by Christopher Hampton
Directed by David Grindley
Through June 28th
American Airlines Theatre
227 West 42nd St.
(212) 719-1300; roundaboutheatre.org 

Photo by Joan Marcus

Broderick (left) and Weber: bad Britcom boys

1970s British satire ages poorly  

Lifeless revival rambles, goes nowhere fast 

By Scott Harrah

Matthew Broderick is horribly miscast in this lifeless revival of Christopher Hampton’s 1970 British satire that puts a new spin on 17th century French playwright Moliere’s “The Misanthrope.”

“The Philanthropist” is a quintessentially British play — and a mediocre one at best — and there’s nothing more frustrating than watching all-American actors like Broderick dismally trying to act like Brits.

Christopher Hampton’s supposed intent was to write a play that was the opposite of “The Misanthrope,” a classic about a man who deplores humanity and conventional society. Broderick plays Philip, a university professor who teaches philology, the study of words. Philip is purportedly a man who sees the good in everything, but Broderick’s performance is so wooden that he almost seems like a supporting character in the first act. He spends most of that act speaking in a monotone voice, draining Hampton’s dialogue of any zest or humor.

The only true standout here is Jonathan Cake as Braham, a velvet-suited, oversexed, sarcastic novelist who delivers bon mots in rapid-fire succession.  He adds badly needed life to the thematically hollow, sleep-inducing first act — which consists of a stultifying, tedious cocktail party. Characters sit around, sip drinks and indulge in pseudo-intellectual bantering. There’s plenty of chatter about literature and a make believe, tragic assassination of the British prime minister and members of Parliament at the House of Commons. This may have seemed like trenchant political satire in early 1970s Britain, but it’s pointless and dull when performed for a 21st century American audience.

Most of the cast members give serviceable performances. Steven Weber is appropriately world-weary as Don, Philip’s colleague, and Jennifer Mudge is pleasantly bubbly as man-crazy Araminta. Samantha Soule plays Elizabeth, a mousy woman who barely utters a word throughout the entire play. The only other actor besides Cake who has any concept of true characterization is Anna Madeley as Celia, Philip’s fiancée.  Madeley has been imported from the show’s recent revival at London’s Donmare Warehouse, and she has all of the right nuances and emotional intensity required for the character.

Other than a silly subplot about Philip’s fiancée Celia finding him with another woman — which unravels like something from a bad sitcom in act two — not much happens. Hampton’s overly talky script has very little action, but it could work with actors who would give some meaning and verve to the material. Under David Grindley’s misguided direction, however, this revival just rambles and goes nowhere.

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