The Philanthropist -- Theater Review

The older he gets, the more Matthew Broderick seems to be receding from existence. The youthful dynamo that was "Ferris Bueller" has become increasingly weak and passive in his characterizations, especially in his stage work. His latest star turn, in this Broadway revival of "The Philanthropist," continues a downward cycle that has continued from "The Producers" to "The Odd Couple" to "The Foreigner."

Not that the play helps him much. This satirical comedy of manners, written by Christopher Hampton as a sort of inverted riposte to Moliere's "The Misanthrope," lacks the thematic focus to overcome its more lugubrious passages.

Broderick plays Philip, a British philologist whose facility with language and anagrams barely disguises a complete inability for social interaction. He's agreeable to a fault, to be sure, but that's the problem. Admitting that he doesn't "even have the courage of my lack of convictions," he manages to alienate everyone with whom he comes into contact even while trying desperately to please.

The play ineffectively infuses elements of social commentary into the mix, with ominous news reports of the assassination of the British prime minister and most of his cabinet and a serial killer who has set out to murder the 25 most important writers in the country. These events barely faze the self-involved characters, while a brutally shocking surprise in the first scene (effectively and graphically staged here) sets the tone for what is to come.

The first act depicts a dinner party held at Philip's apartment, where the guests include his beautiful fiancee, Celia (Anna Madeley); his best friend and colleague, Donald (Steven Weber); the flirtatious Araminta (Jennifer Mudge); the withdrawn Elizabeth (Samantha Soule); and Braham (Jonathan Cake), an arrogant popular novelist who takes an instant dislike to his host.

The second act concerns the ramifications of Philip's passivity, when his inability to refuse a sexual proposition from Araminta -- he's not interested but doesn't want to hurt her feelings -- results in fateful consequences.

Little of interest happens in the talky proceedings, which might have been more palatable in an expert production. But David Grindley's staging, which includes clever but meaningless touches like having each of the seven deadly sins spelled out in large letters before the scenes, fails to compel, and the performances are highly uneven.

Broderick, sporting a technically competent but unconvincing British accent, has worked this sort of territory too often to be interesting, and his one-note turn fails to convey his character's hidden depths. Weber has too little to do in a largely thankless role, and Cake, sporting a 1970s porn star-style mustache, is entertaining but tends to overplay his character's boorishness. The women fare better: Madeley, who previously essayed her role in a production at London's Donmar Warehouse, is highly engaging as Celia, and Mudge brings wonderful comic notes to her free-spirited temptress.

Venue: American Airlines Theatre, New York (Through June 28)
Cast: Matthew Broderick, Jonathan Cake, Anna Madeley, Steven Weber, Tate Ellington, Jennifer Mudge, Samantha Soule
Playwright: Christopher Hampton
Director: David Grindley
Set designer: Tim Shortall
Costume designer: Tobin Ost
Lighting designer: Rick Fisher
Sound designer: Gregory Clarke
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