Monday, May 4, 2009

Theater Review: Christopher Hampton’s “The Philanthropist,” from the Roundabout Theatre Co.

"You just sit there like a pudding," a young woman scolds her fiancé, the title character of Christopher Hampton’s The Philanthropist. Audience members at the American Airlines Theater at the matinee performance I attended 2 ½ weeks ago felt the same sense of frustration.

Laughs came fitfully throughout the show, and by the end of the first act the tepid applause should have tipped off the Roundabout management that they were in the presence of a first-class theatrical calamity.

After Les Liaisons Dangereuses, The Roundabout Theatre Co. must have felt extremely comfortable with playwright Christopher Hampton—so much so that it could unearth one of his early plays.

Now, normally I think it’s a good idea to take a second look at a play that, for one reason or another, has fallen by the wayside. Maybe it was ahead of its time; maybe miscasting was the Achilles heel of the original production.

But sometimes there’s a reason why it hasn’t been done much since, and I’m afraid that’s the case with Hampton’s 1970 comedy. Nearly two decades before Liaisons, Hampton was already demonstrating the wordplay and wit that figured so strongly in his thrilling adaptation of the Laclos epistolary novel.

And, like that play, he had used a French source as a starting point for his ruminations on a cultured but jaded closed circle: Moliere’s The Misanthrope, about a truth-teller who alienates everyone with his dim view of life.

But there were two important differences in what Hampton wove from his two difference sources. Unlike Moliere’s middle-aged Diogenes-style cynic, Hampton’s update is misunderstood in his irony-obsessed society because he’s so nice. More crucially, from the Laclos work, the mature Hampton was able to fashion a dramatic spine, whereas, in his third play, the 24-year-old playwright was more at sea.

“This pudding has no theme,” Winston Churchill once complained. Hampton’s “pudding” has themes aplenty, but it doesn’t have a plot—and, like the Oxford philologist played by Matthew Broderick, it spends an infuriating amount of time puttering around trying to find it.

Let me put it another way: Unlike the Roundabout’s recent Hedda Gabler, every word you heard about this production’s lameness is absolutely true.

Imagine meek, passive-aggressive Leo Bloom of The Producers transplanted to Oxford or Cambridge as a don, and you’ll have an idea of Broderick’s performance. His comic timing hasn’t deserted him (the routine where he pours coffee is priceless), but it’s all in the service of a resoundingly empty theatrical vehicle.

The delight in anagrams taken by Broderick’s philologist character should be a sign of an intellectual mind at play, a sensibility with verve. After his bombastic acquaintance, the writer Braham (played by Jonathan Cake in Carnaby Street attire that may provide the best visual gag of the show), denounces Americans, French and Germans, Philip comes up with an anagram for la comedy francaise, or at least something close to it: “A Defense of Racism.”

But, unable to sustain this high wit, the way a Wilde or Coward could, young Hampton chose to move in a different direction. In Act II, after getting caught in a compromising situation by his girlfriend (typically, he yielded to the temptations of faculty floozy not out of lust but simply not to be unpleasant), Philip explains himself and tries to shake himself from his emotional torpor (“I haven’t even got the courage of my lack of convictions,” he laments).

In certain ways, the Roundabout must have felt that this comedy of character could speak to our time better than its own (nearly two decades before Salman Rushdie’s plight, terrorists target top writers for murder). That was a mistaken assumption, for there is not only an enormous difference in sensibilities over the last four decades, but also a major contrast even in attitudes of the American and British groves of academe.

Perhaps director David Grindley, who performed miracles a few years ago with the Roundabout production of George Bernard Shaw’s Pgymalion, thought he could dust off this play, too. Events have proven him mistaken.

Hampton’s comedy presented him with a most rickety foundation: everything in the play shifts before you know it. A Joe Orton-style bit of absurdist comedy at the beginning is quickly abandoned, for instance.

For several years now, the Roundabout has been afflicted with Anglophilia, but I’m afraid that this time the case looks terminal.

Late last month, Broderick and wife Sarah Jessica Parker announced that they were expecting a child through a surrogate mother. It’s nice to know that by the end of the year, they’ll be having some occasions for joy. It’s just too bad that The Philanthropist will be providing previous few of these.

1 comment:

Art said...

Well, not sorry I'm missing that, I guess. Generally I love everything the ROundabout does--next up is Waiting for Godot. Hopefully Nathan Lane can pull it off, but I have some doubts