Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 26, 2009
The Philanthropist: by Christopher Hampton. Directed by David Grindley. Set design by Tim Shortall. Costume design by Tobin Ost. Lighting design by Rick Fisher. Sound design by Gregory Clarke. Dialect coach Gillian Lane-Plescia. Cast: Matthew Broderick, Jonathan Cake, Anna Madeley, Steven Weber, with Tate Ellington, Jennifer Mudge, Samantha Soule.
This Roundabout Theatre Company production, which has been directed by David Grindley (who also directed it at London's Donmar Warehouse in 2005), demonstrates the perils of casting to name rather than ability, appropriateness, or even basic type. Broderick built his career onstage playing young go-getters like Eugene Jerome in Neil Simon's Brighton Beach Memoirs and Biloxi Blues; and on film playing David Lightman in WarGames and the aforementioned Ferris Bueller. But much of his recent work on both coasts suggests he hasn't successfully evolved beyond those early triumphs when it comes to creating a convincing man onstage.
He's muscled through cartoony musicals like How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (for which he won a Tony) and The Producers on the strength of his natural energy and genial charm. But his last Broadway turn, in The Odd Couple in 2005, deprived him of both, making a constipated, affected, and (worst of all) innately dishonest nothing from the lovable ultimate neurotic neatnik, Felix Ungar. You couldn't believe him because he never believed himself, approaching the role as parlor game than a to-the-bone exploration of a man for whom godliness is next to cleanliness: always playing, but never being.
Broderick is approaching Philip in exactly the same way, with exactly the same results. He's adopted a precisely precious voice, which would sound more appropriate coming from an Essex preschool teacher than a university professor. His cloying, cutesy manner resembles the way a society matrons might coo to a toy poodle she's transporting in her Louis Vuitton handbag. And he approaches every interaction, whether with an enemy or a friend, a girlfriend or a random woman, or even a stranger through an apologetic fog that transcends the character (who's supposed to be spineless) and settles on the actor (who must not be).
The Philanthropist requires that Philip adopt his nothingness as ruthlessly as Molière's The Misanthrope (which Hampton designed his play to respond to) insists its Alceste dispense his acidic critiques. This man must be thoroughly and outrageously forthright about not being forthright about anything; a non-entity in the role prevents it from having any impact whatsoever. And because the role is the center of the play, Broderick's flabbiness of lack-of-personality is an insurmountable problem, regardless of how good everything else surrounding him may be.
Unfortunately, everything else is pretty good. In his recent revivals of Journey's End, Pygmalion, and The American Plan, Grindley has demonstrated a knack for digging into period delicacy (and sometimes indelicacy) and unearthing a recognizable, if often battle-scarred, humanity. He does that here as well, squeezing plenty of emotions from Hampton's blistering critique of academic and political insularity that, because of Broderick, ultimately become the blood and guts of this easily cynical outing.
Philip is reflected most readily in his best friend, Donald (Steven Weber), and his fiancée, Celia (Anna Madeley), who have their own methods of getting revenge on, and taking advantage of, Philip's too-good graces. They all show just how much he'll put up with: Donald's appropriating a girl he once thought perfect for Philip, Celia using Philip's self-sacrificing willingness to move increasingly away from him, the novelist revealing himself an insufferable twit because no one dares to speak up to stop him, and one of the women (Mudge) advancing all the way into Philip's bedroom because he can't bear to bruise her feelings by refusing her.
It's all intricately clever as written and intelligently (if traditionally) staged; and the supporting performances - particularly from Weber, Madeley (an import from the Donmar), and Cake (doing work even more glitteringly guttural than usual) - make things as real as they can be in this hopped-up comedy-of-too-many-manners. They draw you into their characters' shut-in existence, forcing you to accept their troubles as the only ones that matter, even though the rest of humanity (especially the English government, which topples like dominoes over the course of the play) is being swallowed up outside.
But although the other actors put the world into clearer focus by playing its worst elements as integral parts of themselves, Broderick seems to be from another planet altogether. Philip needs to be the axis around which the play's events revolve, a man who's in the thick of things but never able to hold on. He's an active man who makes the wrong things happen by his determination to say the right thing; he may be removed from everyone else emotionally, but he is a part of their lives. One thing he's not is the stereotypical, tweed-wearing, academic outsider who can't stop smoking his pipe and rise from his fireside easy chair to live.
Yet this is exactly how Broderick plays him, with an isn't-Drama-Club-fun grin pasted across his face almost the entire time. Philip is an adult male who's never learned how to be a man; Broderick is never more than a boy playing dress-up. You can still enjoy this otherwise amusing evening by viewing it around its star, but no audience member should be forced to work that hard. Then again, perhaps it makes sense. You've heard that old saying that no good deed goes unpunished? It's rarely been truer than with this production of The Philanthropist.