Director David Grindley had a hit in 2005 with his Donmar Warehouse revival of Christopher Hampton’s “The Philanthropist,” its cast headed by Simon Russell Beale, an actor who could locate the emotional undertow in even the most distancing role. There’s no reason to question the endorsement of London critics, but every reason to suppose the change of venue and lead actor must have taken a dire toll on Grindley’s production. With Matthew Broderick reducing the title character to a cartoon, performing in his own hermetic space that excludes everyone else onstage, the play sits inertly, its poignancy lost and its clever dialogue hollowed into empty banter.
“You’re so incredibly bland, you just sit there like a pudding, wobbling gently,” says Celia (Anna Madeley) to her unassertive fiance Philip (Broderick). Harsh as that sounds, it’s hard to fault her assessment. An English university professor who lectures in philology because he lacks the skills to teach literature (“I have no critical faculties”), Philip is mild-mannered, non-committal and chronically apologetic to the point of near-invisibility. He’s an anagram wiz (before there was an online anagram generator to perform that task) who likes everyone and everything.
Hampton constructed the 1970 play as an inversion of Moliere’s “The Misanthrope,” but what no doubt plays as skilful reversal with a nuanced interpretation of the central character is rendered tediously academic when that anxious, lonely man comes across as a drone without a soul. Add the mock-earnest voice of someone parodying Trevor Howard in “Brief Encounter” and all underlying despair evaporates.
While Moliere’s protagonist alienated everyone around him via his inability to mask his scornful opinions, Philip rubs people the wrong way with his pathological pleasantness. Hampton pushes that reaction to extremes with his attention-grabbing opening scene, in which an Angry Young Man playwright (Tate Ellington) reads aloud from his work, then interprets Philip’s innocuous approval as a devastating dismissal.
Far less drastic in his response but no less irked by Philip is Braham (Jonathan Cake), a successful writer and swaggering egotist who reads the offending dweeb’s disengagement as a dig. “I think you’re being subtly insulting,” he suggests after Philip turns his fascination with structural linguistics to Braham’s choice of words. “There’s nothing cruder than an excess of subtlety.”
Hampton sketches the airless world of these self-absorbed academics and artists with a poison pen, setting their decadent insularity against a climate of escalating violence and anarchy, reflecting the time of political ferment in which the play was written. The prime minister and most of his cabinet have been murdered by a right wing fanatic, leaving the Minister of Sport next in line to run the country. And a terrorist group has begun a campaign to assassinate England’s greatest living writers, a list from which Braham is peeved to have been omitted.
The central scene is a dinner party for six, at which Philip and ambitious young graduate Celia entertain cynical professor Donald (Steven Weber), Braham, campus tart Araminta (Jennifer Mudge) and Elizabeth (Samantha Soule), a mouse reportedly carrying a torch for Philip. But it’s the aftermath of this scene and Araminta’s thankless attempt to seduce him that force Philip to face the fear and humiliation of solitude.
Grindley and Broderick get comic mileage out of Philip’s quiet panic as aggressive Araminta makes her move and he obliges more out of politeness than desire. Likewise, there are moments when Philip’s discomfort at the evidence of his incompatability with Celia suggests some deeply hidden layer of human vulnerability beneath the caricature. But even when Philip, in an uncharacteristic bit of self-analysis, reflects on the fragile happiness of “a full life and an empty one,” Broderick still doesn’t entirely convince us there’s anybody home.
The lack of texture in the central performance sucks the life out of everything else in the play, dulling down even some of the wittiest stretches of dialogue. However, Madeley (the sole holdover from the London cast) finds a pulse in flinty Celia, notably when she’s bordering on spitefulness; Weber is appealingly at ease as a man proudly dedicated to idleness; and Cake has fun with an overstated role, strutting around in a ridiculous Elvis-goes-Oxbridge striped velvet suit, frill-front shirt and porn-star handlebar mustache.
Handsome as it is, Tim Shortall’s set seems engulfed on the American Airlines stage, despite the towering shelf of books that dominates Philip’s sterile living room/study. The black recesses on either side may represent the shadowy menace beyond this oblivious world, but the play and its characters appear dwarfed. There’s too little incentive to enter this cloistered domain, let alone spend time pondering the deadly sins of its inhabitants.