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THE EVEN-KEELEDNESS OF IT ALL

  

picture - The PhilanthropistTheater Review

by Cindy Pierre

published May 1, 2009

 

The Philanthropist

now playing on Broadway at the American Airlines Theatre

through June 28

 

The meek may be inheriting the earth someday, but in Christopher Hampton's The Philanthropist, one such compliant and spiritless creature is inheriting the stage right now.  College professor Philip, played by Tony Award winner Matthew Broderick, is a creature alright, baffling and amusing us with an even temper and submissiveness that no one can rival.  But anyone can remain cool under the collar without being tested, right?  Luckily, Philip, along with fellow colleague Donald (the thoughtful Steven Weber), are up for the challenge.

 

The Philanthropist opens with two very different visuals competing for your attention.  One is of the very frantic John (Tate Ellington) wagging a gun in Philip's general direction, and the other is of set designer Tim Shortall's larger than life study.  We don't know what to make of John, but we know that neither Philip nor Donald is breaking out in a sweat; so when we discover that John is just a zealous playwright re-enacting a scene from his mediocre play, their reactions are acceptable.  What is not acceptable, however, is their indifference when John accidentally shoots himself in the face.  This scene, already sensationalist, goes overboard with a gory, startling ending that drives the point home about Philip's even temper before the point is even introduced. 

 

But as attention-grabbing as the action is, it doesn't eclipse the grand set, particularly since that is the most volatile that the play gets.  Large, skyscraper-like bookcases adorn the stage, denoting the importance of education and studiousness to the characters.  But before you can wonder why a ladder leans against the empty bookcase instead of the one occupied with books, you'll be able to see a copy of Moliere's The Misanthrope, another character play, in the shadows.  Is it subliminal?  Perhaps.  But it is also tastefully done.  Other subliminal messages, however, are not as polished or imaginative.

 

While you're trying to make sense of Philip and his circle of friends, you'll note that Rick Fisher's lighting design is trying hard to give you a crash course in the seven deadly sins.  Words like “sloth” and “pride” preface scenes in a Wheel of Fortune way that reveals letters one and a time.  And no, Vanna White isn't doing the honors.  It's not that this gimmick is done poorly, but the fact that this gimmick is used at all is surprising for a show of this caliber.  We know that Philip is “fascinated by words”, but there are ways in which we discern this that are much more clever, such as a simple conversation amongst friends.

 

picture - The PhilanthropistDespite everything that unravels before, the play doesn't really begin until Philip and his philandering, writer friend Braham (Jonathan Cake) discusses anagrams and, ahem, cunnilingus.  This fascinating dialogue, held during a gathering in which Donald, Philip's “trivial” (but unjustifiably so) fiancée Celia (Anna Madeley), pleasure-seeker Araminta (Jennifer Mudge) and the substantial but silent Elizabeth (Samantha Soule) attend, reveals that Braham and Philip are polar opposites that can learn a lot from one another.  From there, Philip's demeanor continues to be tested by friends, frenemies and lovers alike in multiple ways that may not be har har funny, but humorous just the same.

 

Although Philip's brand of philanthropy is donations of good will instead of money or volunteer work,  it's the most difficult of all.  Under David Grindley's strong direction, Broderick plays him so unassumingly that you wonder if anything can rile him up.  You may think he's obtuse at first and even chide him, but Broderick also brings a sadness to the character that makes you root for him, particularly in the heart-to-heart talk between him and Celia. This scene may slow down the pacing of the show, but the words exchanged are profound and they show a side to Philip that teeters on, gasp, real emotion.  Together with a good supporting cast, they create a microcosm that is perplexing but entertaining.

 

The Philanthropist probably won't inspire you to be altruistic, but it's a smart, albeit facetious character study that might convict you of your own out-of-control behavior.  There's something to be said about an unflappable man.  Here, you'll get 2 compelling hours worth of his merits.

 

cindypierre @ stageandcinema.com

 

all photos are by Joan Marcus

 

 
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