PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: The Philanthropist — Word-Wild But Not Wise

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27 Apr 2009

Nathan Lane and <I>The Philanthropist</I> star Matthew Broderick; playwright Christopher Hampton and guests Martha Plimpton and Ron Rifkin
Nathan Lane and The Philanthropist star Matthew Broderick; playwright Christopher Hampton and guests Martha Plimpton and Ron Rifkin
Photo by Aubrey Reuben

Philip, The Philanthropist in the 1970 Christopher Hampton play by that name bowing April 26 at Roundabout's American Airlines Theatre, has a way with words.

He revels in them. He loves squeezing a good noun against a good verb to see what comes out. Anagrams keep his mind at play. Toss him "Shakespeare" and "Hamlet," and — voila! — he'll throw back, quick as a wink, "make the real shapes" on the spot.

But, for all his boundless love of words, the tragedy of Philip is that he doesn't really know how to use them to communicate with people — only how to avoid and evade and evaporate into the middle of the road without anyone knowing what he thinks.

Which is why he teaches philology at Oxford — because he can talk lovingly around a subject without really taking a hard-and-fast stand on it (much like what I do with "On Opening Night"). Socially speaking, a man without a stance is a terrible thing wasted, as Philip's friends and even his fiancée come resoundingly to realize.

Matthew Broderick pads about in the part rather amiably as if he were wearing curb feelers so he won't offend the feelings of others — which he unerringly does.

It's like Leo Bloom lost in a world of higher learning — certainly higher than double-entry Broadway bookkeeping. Indeed, the curtain here rises on two Leo Blooms — the first two: Broderick and Steven Weber, who followed him directly into that role and now plays a fellow Oxford don, Donald. Both are staring intensely down the barrel of a revolver being brandished by a young playwright (Tate Ellington), trying to justify a suicidal finale. Donald thinks it lacks credibility, but Philip, lacking any critical facility, rather likes it — a bland assessment that sends the poor writer over the edge.

Next, the passive-aggressive fun 'n' games really get in gear when Philip and his fiancée, Celia (Anna Madeley), throw a party where the guests consists of Donald, a hot-shot novelist (Jonathan Cake), a hot-to-trot young tart (Jennifer Mudge) and a meek-as-a-churchmouse lass who turns out to be Princess Still Water (Samantha Soule). As after-hours faculty parties go, this one musters a sliver of civility missing in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? but it too disintegrates into a game of musical beds. Act Two is devoted to putting all the pieces back together again, or trying to.

Hampton was 24 years old when he came up with the idea of Philip, making him the polar opposite of Alceste in The Misanthrope, a chap who infuriated people by speaking his mind. "I was a student at Oxford, studying French, and Moliere was my special subject," he recalled after the opening night performance. "I just got the idea that maybe an opposite sort of character to Alceste — somebody who was nice to everybody and spoke his mind — might annoy people just as much. It was the late '60s, and universities were exploding all over Europe, but not sleepy old Oxford."

It was "a young man's play," he conceded, "but I think it's still working, and that's one of the nicest things about it." In 2005, he dusted it off for a Donmar Warehouse production in England, directed by David Grindley, who has imported the production — and actress Madeley — to the colonies for a Roundabout revival.

"It's different," the author allowed. "The nuances are different, and the feeling is different. Anyone who plays the role stamps his personality on the play differently."

Madeley seconded that, having altered the performance she originally gave opposite Simon Russell Beale to better return Broderick's serve. "Every actor comes with a different idea for the play that they're playing," she explained. "Matthew has his voice for the character which is really strong, and so I was immediately able to answer him back. It's different. Different actors do different things, and, in this production, you go with the choices. They make you respond differently, and you rediscover your character. You're being fed different things so you react differently."

Happily, there's a lot for Madeley to tap into about Celia. "I think Christopher's writing is absolutely fantastic on her. She's a young graduate student, really smart and opinionated and strong, but she's also incredibly vulnerable. I think he writes the whole human condition so brilliantly into his characters, They have so many facets to them, and that's really fun to explore as an actor. You only have what the writer has given you to play with, and this is so rich. I still find, revisiting it, there was so much in it to play that I haven't explored. So I really say thank you to him."

[flipbook] Elaborating on the difference between Beale and Broderick, director Grindley said, "I think what was great about Simon is that he lives on stage with the character that I think he felt immediately drawn to and I felt he was immediately at home with the material. That's not surprising, but Matthew has a much greater challenge. He's got the accent to do, obviously, and also he's playing a part that possibly doesn't resonate with an American actor the same way it does with an English actor. He's a withdrawn, rather passive character. He's not dynamic. He's not Stanley Kowalski, for example. But Matthew is brilliant and really getting under the skin of this guy."

What was his clue that Broderick could bring this character off? "Well, his work in 'Election.' I saw that movie, and I thought, when I was thinking through the casting, that he played a similar, rather reticent, passive character who's forced to become dynamic in that story. And I just felt he would, if he were prepared to do it, be perfect, and that's exactly what's going down. He has really risen to a challenge, I think, and is doing a fantastic job, and I'm very pleased that he was able to do it."

The set that Tim Shortall devised for The Philanthropist befits an Oxford prof — rows of books, but all of them (symbolically perhaps) painted gray, and running across the top of the set is a board of random letters in which Rick Fisher's lighting design blink on between scenes, eventually spelling out one of the seven deadly sins.

"That letter board was always in the set," said Grindley, "and, just as we started rehearsing, Christopher said, 'Well, you know, there are seven characters in the show, and I thought it would be fun that each of them represent one of the seven deadly sins.' The moment he told me that, I thought, 'Well, great. We'll use that as a means to frame the show so, basically, it is [up to] the audience to decide which is which. There are seven characters and seven deadly sins — which character is which sin? There's a composition for you. Answer by postcard. I'll tell you if you're right or not."


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