There is a dark and gaping hole at the heart of The Philanthropist, Christopher Hampton's 1970 "bourgeois comedy" — namely, its passive and pastel title character.
Philip, as filled in by Matthew Broderick in the revival at Roundabout's American Airlines Theatre, is the dull lull at the center of the storm being waged around him by his alpha-type associates. He teaches philology at a British university and spends most of Act I playing Perfect Party Host, replenishing drinks, lighting cigarettes, everything but making any kind of stand about anything. "I'm a man of no conviction — or, at least, I think I am," he twitters tenuously. His ability to accommodate, apologize and equivocate himself out of existence is madly infuriating for his intimates. Even his own fiancée has to confess, "You just sit there like a pudding, wobbling gently."
"I don't think he's a blank, but he certainly appears to be," admits Broderick, who feels Philip gets in his share of "polite" jabs that draw blood. "He doesn't realize when you're not supposed to say things and when you are. He tells this woman he has just tried to sleep with that he couldn't because he actually wasn't attracted to her — that's something you don't hear often. He tells people what he's thinking without the proper filter, but in a very friendly way. Whether by accident or not, he says provocative things. He speaks the truth, to the point where he can't help it."
By any other name, The Philanthropist is The Misanthrope. The only difference is how they get to the same point of social annihilation. Molière's Alceste levels the field by speaking his uncensored mind unapologetically; Hampton's Philip achieves the same effect by wrapping his honesty in cellophane and putting a pretty bow on it. Broderick treads light-footedly into this public arena like Leo Bloom before he found crime and spine, giving off the spacey outer-world airs he affected for The Foreigner.
"In some ways," he says, "the play seems close enough to me that I knew I could manage, but it is also very challenging, and that's why I thought doing it was a good idea. I've certainly never spoken this much in a play — or had a 32-page breakup scene. That is a challenge, but Anna is so good that it's a pleasure, thank heavens."
"Anna" is a Broadway-debuting Anna Madeley. She did the 2005 Donmar Warehouse revival opposite Simon Russell Beale, under David Grindley's direction.
Having her and Hampton and Grindley on hand — plus a slice of Jonathan Cake as Philip's showboaty love-rival — has worked wonders for Broderick's clipped-Brit accent.
"Christopher Hampton wrote this when he was 24, but he was right there to answer questions about the play. It's very reassuring. He has sort of a stillness to him that seems very much like this character. One might accidentally call him a pudding."