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The Philanthropist

19 April 2009 (American Airlines Theatre)

The Philanthropist, a play by Christopher Hampton that was first performed in the summer of 1970, seems impossibly slight now. It hasn't dated so much as it has reproduced; all of its shocks and peripeties have become very familiar in the past forty years — which is tribute enough. But there's one thing that a contemporary play would do better, or at least work at in a more satisfying way: the title character would be a much bigger, juicier part. I can't help thinking that Matthew Broderick was persuaded to take on the role because it is by now a venerable theatre piece, having last been mounted in New York by the Manhattan Theatre Club in 1983, with David McCallum in the lead. As for "the lead," though, we expect more of leading roles today.

Philip, the "philanthropist," is an Oxbridge don who teaches philology. He loves words so much that he has never read a book that he didn't like. He is the mirror image of Molière's "misanthrope," not just because of his indiscriminate beneficence but because his feelings are as shallow as Alceste's are profound. Philip has somehow progressed from boyhood to old age without ever having committed to manhood.

That's no excuse, though, for leaving him to sit about at his own dinner party, smiling with inane politeness, while his more interesting guests spout worldly philosophy. The first act curtain comes down on what ought to be a very dramatic moment. Philip, engaged to Celia, is propositioned by Araminta — the niceties if not the nomenclature of Molière's world have been junked — and he accepts, hastily swallowing a drink, asking heaven's forgiveness, and traipsing after Araminta into his bedroom. In 1970, the scene must have been shocking just because the lady so frankly hits on the gentleman. Now it seems somewhat hard to believe, just because Philip has been a cipher during the preceding party scene. Araminta may claim to have a thing for shy men, but that's a preference unlikely to be shared by theatregoers. There are ways of fascinating audiences with silence, but there is nothing fascinating about Philip. That's the problem with the first act of The Philanthropist: dramatically, there is almost nothing about Philip at all.

Philip is busy enough in the second act, which begins with another shocking scene: interloper Araminta assures impromptu visitor Celia that her night of love with Philip was so lackluster that she "won't be coming back for more." That's a cheekily insulting way of assuring a fiancée that she needn't worry about "the other woman." Philip himself manages to be shocking when he apologizes to Araminta for his less than gallant performance but goes on to explain that he doesn't find her attractive. But shock has intensified a bit since the postwar period. It's no longer the things that people say that stir us, but the things that people do. I'm thinking of a surprise that, curiously enough, echoes the genuinely shocking moment at the beginning of The Philanthropist: the defacement of an expensive work of art at the climax of Yasmina Reza's Art.

Mr Hampton's gamble, in The Philanthropist, is that Philip's extraordinary passivity — what could be more passive than going to bed with a woman in order to spare her feelings? — is symbolically dramatic even if he is not personally interesting. For Philip clearly represents the rot at the top of the English establishment. He is cosseted by the state for doing nothing of any importance, but doing it in the proper way. In his second-act encounters, we learn that Philip is aware of his uselessness, painfully so. But we need to find this out in the first act, while his friend, Donald, argues with a dreadfully cynical popinjay who seems to be proud of his rot. Looking back, I recalled a first act that abounds in opportunities for Philip to reveal himself through witty Wildean paradoxes. But instead, as the clock ticks on and on, the philanthropist says almost nothing, while Braham devours the scenery.

Lest it seem that I mean to advance a theory of dramatic proportion, to insist that important characters must always have significant first act arias, let me position my complaint as that of a ticketbuyer who hoped to see more of Matthew Broderick, an actor whose stage style — quite unlike his movie manner — is always surprising and usually haunting. He manages to be funny enough, in The Philanthropist, whenever he's called upon to be anything at all. His valiant colleagues, starting with director David Grindley, include Steven Weber as Donald and Jonathan Cake as Braham (Art again: what a fine three-man performance they manage to give, notwithstanding the presence of other actors). Anna Madeley (Celia) and Jennifer Mudge (Araminta) are to be commended for fine impersonations of types who roamed the earth before they were born; Ms Mudge is particularly 1970. Tate Ellington does a superb job with his truncated part at the beginning, while poor Elizabeth Soule — did she get to say so much as word during the dinner scene? If so, I didn't hear it. Tim Shortall's set was exciting if slightly hyperactive (how did the seven deadly sins come into it?), and nicely lighted by Rick Fisher. Tobin Ost's period costumes were spot on, especially Braham's peacock suit. Gregory Clarke's sound was really too loud, and "barock" music is an entirely different cultural patois nowadays — I'd have re-thought some of the selections from Handel, Haydn, & al)

In the end, perhaps, Mr Hampton is too lively a playwright to do justice to the Philips of academia. It is almost painful to imagine what Alan Bennett might have made of the character.

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