nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 30, 2009
"I must be cruel, only to be kind," says Hamlet famously; these could also be the bywords of Alceste, the protagonist of Moliere's The Misanthrope, whose frustration at the inadequacies of a human race he cares for beyond measure drive him to style himself a hater of men and women.
Philip, the bland, affectless, and eager-to-please leading character of Christopher Hampton's The Philanthropist, is Alceste's opposite. As we discover in this low-key but high-impact tragicomedy of manners, Philip is kind always, or intends to be; but the result, in scene after scene, is that the object of his kindness takes it as a mad cruelty of the most biting sort. As the play drifts toward a conclusion that is i n retrospect inevitable, we wonder who, if anyone, Philip really loves at all.
The comparison to Moliere is very much built into the play, by the way; from its title to its structure to various allusions throughout the script, The Philanthropist is very clearly a 20th century reply to that famous farce about hypocrisy. Philip is as honest as Alceste, but where the latter's truthfulness turns him into a scathing critic of the outputs and behaviors of his friends and colleagues, Philip's candor is empty, stemming from a hollow lack of compassion or concern about anything except being safe and liked.
Philip is a professor of philology at an English university, and the entire play transpires in his rooms. After an opening scene whose specific events cannot fairly be disclosed, the first act revolves around a dinner party at which Philip entertains his best friend Donald (a professor of literature); Braham, an up-and-coming novelist who is letting his budding fame go directly to his head; and three students at the university, Celia (who is Philip's fiancee), Araminta (a beautiful blonde nymphomaniac), and Elizabeth (who is very very shy but, Donald says, cares for Philip). Braham dominates the proceedings with his bullying swagger. But it is only Philip who gets the best of him, albeit entirely unintentionally and, indeed, ingenuously.
The chief conflict in the plot comes in the play's second act, when it appears that Philip may emerge from his cocoon—first when his relationship with Celia turns stormy, and later when he finds it necessary to at last assert himself with Donald.
Because Philip is such a placid, reactive sort of figure, the play's dynamic feels off-kilter and distorted: the protagonist is unapproachable and hard to care about and spends almost all of the first act and most of the second never really doing anything. Matthew Broderick is in fact quite brilliant in the role, filling in the character with lots of details that may feel like an actor's gimmickry but instead are shrewd choices: watch, for example, how Broderick steals the first scene from co-stars Steven Weber and Tate Ellington as they chatter about a play that Ellington's character has written while he extracts some chocolate candy from a box. His disinterest and his disengagement are palpable.
David Grindley's production is similarly canny throughout. There are places where the thing feels hopelessly talky and trivial, but ultimately the play's staggering intimacy gives it authentic heft: The Philanthropist is about the most fundamental belief systems that people create, or exploit, in order to get through bitter days and nights, and the discomfort Hampton and Grindley make us feel in confronting them is, I think, intentional. And Tim Shortall has provided a striking, unrealistic set that reminds us that the play is a metaphor more than a story.
The ensemble does excellent work. I've already talked about Broderick's performance; Weber (best known from TV shows like Wings and The D.A.) shows us all the sides of Donald—his affability, his passion and idealism, and his bitter frustration at how life has turned out. Ellington is memorable in his single scene as their playwright/colleague John. Both Anna Madeley (Celia) and Jennifer Mudge (Araminta) give vivid, nuanced performances that make their characters sympathetic and fully dimensional despite the unpleasant traits with which the playwright has saddled them. Samantha Soule is quite funny conveying the extreme discomfort that Elizabeth feels in the presence of bombastic Braham. And Matthieu Cornillon, who subbed for Jonathan Cake at the performance reviewed, is superb as Braham, revealing him to be repulsive even when the insecurities and pretenses of his character are stripped away. I was glad to catch him in his Broadway debut.
The Philanthropist is not a play for everyone: it's a bit ponderous, I suppose, because mostly what it wants to do is ponder philosophical questions that most of us prefer never to look at. But it's skillful and, at best, profound; and Broderick, Grindley, and their collaborators are doing a solid rendering of it for the Roundabout. For me, it was a neat little morsel buried within this bounteous spring we're having on Broadway.