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

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.

Nathan Lane and The Philanthropist 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)

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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This is Grindley's fourth Broadway show in two years, and he's obviously quite smitten with the way they do things over here. "I absolutely love it," he exclaimed so there would be no doubt. "The actors are tremendous, particularly in the working circumstances that I've had. The opportunity to produce and mount the show to the way I want it has been unparalleled, really, and I've been very, very fortunate in the casts I've been able to attract and the quality of production values I've been able to bring to the work here. It's a thrill. I'll come back every time they want me." But his upcoming workload will keep him away from The Great White Way for a while. "I'm doing A Midsummer Night's Dream for the Shakespeare festival at Stratford, then I've got a show back in England toward the end of the year. It's very hush-hush, but it's at The Old Vic. There'll be an announcement at the end of May."

Most of these interviews were done in the spacious entranceway of the American Airlines Theatre, then stars and celebs were whisked four doors west on 42nd Street to party headquarters at the B.B. King Blues Club & Grill. Metal barricades kept back reality and a full complement of 42nd Street's usual rowdy, rubber-necking rabble.

Sarah Jessica Parker made the press rounds with husband Broderick, taking the backseat position and beaming proudly. Privately, she confessed to a bad case of simpatico nerves. Their six-year-old (named James, after Broderick's actor-dad), who rounds out this family of lefties, has yet to set Daddy at work. "The play's a little bit too sophisticated for him," Parker understated, "but he's going to come backstage in a couple of weeks and stay backstage during the show looking at his father act."

Broderick admitted an immediate attraction for the play and the character. "I just liked it when I read it, honestly," he said. "Roundabout sent it to me, and I was kinda looking for something. I hadn't done a play in a while, and I'd done a bunch of movies. I didn't know anything about the play. I'd always heard that it was good play though, and a very interesting character. It's seriously a pleasure to read it over and over again and get to know Chris Hampton a bit. I admire this play enormously."

He found several ways to hook into the character. "I kinda like his passionate desire to please other people, which make him 'live in a state of terror,' as he says. All actors feel that, I think. And he has his difficulty communicating with his fiancée. A lot of people can relate to that. She says, 'You don't understand what I'm trying to say,' and he says, 'Maybe not, but I think I usually understand what you do say.'" When a reporter asked if he wore a gray wig, Parker could contain herself no more and burst forth with: "No, that's his hair. He has earned every single one of them."

It's somehow easy to forget that 26 years have elapsed since he made his Tony-winning Main Stem bow in Neil Simon's Brighton Beach Memoirs. The fact that it will be revived this fall with Simon's follow-up, Broadway Bound, sent Broderick off on a comic riff — much to Parker's delight: "I wish them nothing but ill. I just hope they fail horribly because I'm not in it so why do it? Good luck in finding somebody like me." Then, he post-scripted in penance: "No, I kid. Those are great plays."

Weber recognized it might be a blow to the system to have two Blooms on stage at once. "I know — it's frightening. Too much talent on that stage. Too much Bloom. It's a bouquet. A bouquet of Blooms."

Another thing the two have in common is that when these roles were first introduced on Broadway, Alec McCowen's Philip was Tony-nominated, as was Ed Zimmermann's Donald. "He was?" Weber questioned incredulously. Then, pausing a beat, he too went into a funny rant. "I expect that to happen again. You may start the rumors right now — also for an Obie and a Pulitzer. Earl Wilson wrote a rave for me."

On a more serious note, he admitted he was pleased with the character he was playing. "I love that he's vulnerable," he said straight-off. "And, also, the particular quality that this character has is not one that you usually see in a play. It's odd. It's a complex kind of emotion. It kinda just occurs to him that he leads a useless life."

His Donald organizes the party, which uncouples in an unexpected way. "It's almost a given that these rakish professors are going to end up with some young filly. I'm trying to get the sexpot, but I end up with this girl who turns out to be a whirlwind. Apparently, these kinds of mixers are kinda common. I'm married to an English woman, Juliet Hohnen, so I know a little bit about getting together with English people and drinking. She has been working on my English accent for 16 years."

Coming from Worthing, England, Cake had no accent problem and flaunted it in the role of the obnoxious literary light who's given to socially startling pronouncements like "Masturbation is the thinking man's television." Clearly, Cake doesn't cater to audience sympathy: "I've had to reconcile myself to that throughout my career. If I had to shy away from being disliked, I wouldn't get much work. It's very intriguing to me why egotists are egotists, why people feel the need to dominate the room like some people do. I feel that always comes from some more interesting psychological place. Generally, it's deep unhappiness, which is definitely the case with this guy."

Hastening those negative audience vibes is a sleazy, downward-turned mustache properly out of the '70s. "I call it 'Misinterpreted in Chelsea,'" Cake quipped. "This is where I live. I've been getting a lot of Welcome Home kind of looks. It's a cheap Lee Majors impersonation, but it seems to work in the context of the three-piece, multi-colored bell-bottom suit, but, outside in the real world, it's weird. Someone had to wear some pretty embarrassing facial hair for the team, and I feel like I took that hit. My character would be the one putting himself in the way of that. It would be hard not to have a good time with this character. Simply the fact that I come on in this extraordinary hologram of a suit, with Cuban stacked heels and massive bouffant hairdo — I mean, it's hard to ignore him. I can only mess it up from there on."

Soule, as the party's still-waters-run-deep mystery lady, also has no accent worries, but then she has no words. "I got to show up to rehearsal the first day off-book," she cracked, "but the part is trickier than I thought it would be, actually. It's all a kind of exercise in simplicity and subtlety and how do you dissolve and then reappear as a presence without having the use of your words and a voice to speak them. It was fun to play with. Her interactions with the other people — that's what heightens it."

Ellington, who begins the show with a figurative and literal bang, seems to play the novice playwright in total italics, and getting to that high-strung state where he is at the top of the show hasn't been very easy. "I think I'm the one that halfway freaks people out backstage," he said. "Usually, I just go in and listen to music. There's a song that I like that has a very sort of droning beat by Mark Kazolok. It's a great song. It sounds like a murder, basically, and it always seems to get me pretty much there."

Mudge, as the easy mark of the evening who makes a play for Broderick's character, has been doing heavy-duty work Off-Broadway ( Dutchman, Pavilion) — mostly in low-cut dresses. "I love this character. I think she's lonely. I feel bad for her. At the start, I think I judged her, but, as we rehearsed it, I decided she's really a sweet soul.

"Matthew has been a dream to work with. He made me feel like I'm Nathan Lane. He's one of the best people to play a scene with. There are only ten lines in our last scene, but it seems like seven minutes because there's so much in-between.

"It's very important to me to be part of the New York community. To have people like Margaret Colin and Kevin Geer and John Benjamin Hickey come up to me after the show and be so nice to me is incredible because I think they're awesome. I like movie stars just fine, but I really like theatre folk the best, I think."

Lane, who has an opening this week himself ( Waiting for Godot, at Studio 54, on April 30), headed up the cheering section for his old Producers pal. And Broderick's best bud from school, playwright Kenneth Lonergan, was present, revealing that the play he wrote for Broderick and once promised for Broadway, Starry-Eyed Messenger, will instead surface Off-Broadway next season on The New Group's schedule, with Broderick starring and Lonergan directing. "It hasn't officially been announced yet," said the author. Broderick will again play a teacher — but one on the low-end of the academic ladder, teaching astronomy at the Natural History Museum.

Mrs. Lonergan — the super-gifted J. Smith Cameron, to you — said she was headed to the Bay Street Theatre at the end of July for Dinner, a 2002 play by British dramatist Moira Buffini. "It's a very dark comedy, and it has not been done in New York yet. David Esbjornson will direct, and Mercedes Ruehl and Reed Birney co-star."

Director Grindley had his own support system going as well, made up mostly of actors from his previous Broadway shows. Brenda Pressley, who played the very alert maid in The American Plan, had a place of honor at his table, and Boyd Gaines and Jefferson Mays — who co-starred in Grindley's Pygmalion and Tony-winning revival of Journey's End — made the rounds with their respective and quite attractive wives.

Producer Jed Bernstein was singing the praises of a recent reading of a musicalized Kind Hearts and Coronets, where Mays did Alec Guinness' old hat-trick of ten roles, bringing along assorted hats and props so that each character came lavishly to life. The music and lyrics are by the talented Steven Lutvak, who's long-overdue a hit.

Other first-nighters included Debra Monk and goddaughter Emma Tammi, Roundabout's Gene Feist and Todd Haimes, costume designer Martin Pakledinaz, David Pittu, Bill Irwin, choreographer-actor Josh Prince, Betsy Aidem, Jerry Stiller, Catch Me If You Can's Scott Wittman, Tony Walton, Shrek's David Lindsay-Abaire and Jeanine Tesori, Swoosie Kurtz (fresh from playing a corrupt judge on "Law and Order" — "It's going to be on a week from Tuesday. They work so fast."), Brooks Ashmanskas (taking some ribbing about his billing for The Public's current Christopher Durang, Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them: "Hooters Consultant" — he, obviously, got it all wrong!), Ron Rifkin, set designer Tony Walton, producer Jeff Richards, playwright Douglas Carter Beane, Roger Rees and Rick Elice, director Jo Bonney and Eric Bogosian, Martha Plimpton, director Charles Randolph Wright, Dana Ivey, The Language of Trees author and director Steven Levenson and Alex Timbers, Speech and Debate's Jason Fuchs (who wrapped a new flick last month), "E.R." and "Law and Order" regular Julianne Nicholson (a.k.a. Mrs. Jonathan Cake), directors Mark Brokaw and Bobby Longbottom, composer Philip Glass and Carolyn McCormick.

The cast of <I>The Philanthropist</I> take their opening night bow
The cast of The Philanthropist take their opening night bow