By Christopher Hampton. Directed by David Grindley. Roundabout at the American Airlines Theatre. (CLOSED)
When the highest grade a show gets is a C+, you know the knives are out. This time they're aimed squarely at lead actor Matthew Broderick, as a bland philology professor conceived by playwright Christopher Hampton as an inversion of Moliere's Alceste (from The Misanthrope). Critics vary in their generosity to Hampton's 1970 play, and toward supporting actors Jonathan Cake, Steven Weber, Anna Madeley, and Jennifer Mudge, but most agree that Tim Shortall's set is mistakenly vast and David Grindley's direction altogether too genteel. Critics are unusually unanimous on one point: Broderick is miscast and underperforming in the role.
(David Rooney) With Matthew Broderick reducing the title character to a cartoon, performing in his own hermetic space that excludes everyone else onstage, the play sits inertly, its poignancy lost and its clever dialogue hollowed into empty banter...Hampton sketches the airless world of these self-absorbed academics and artists with a poison pen, setting their decadent insularity against a climate of escalating violence and anarchy, reflecting the time of political ferment in which the play was written...Grindley and Broderick get comic mileage out of Philip's quiet panic as aggressive Araminta makes her move and he obliges more out of politeness than desire....The lack of texture in the central performance sucks the life out of everything else in the play, dulling down even some of the wittiest stretches of dialogue. However, Madeley (the sole holdover from the London cast) finds a pulse in flinty Celia, notably when she's bordering on spitefulness; Weber is appealingly at ease as a man proudly dedicated to idleness; and Cake has fun with an overstated role.
Associated Press C+
(Michael Kuchwara) "The Philanthropist" needs a crackerjack collection of performers to get across Hampton's sly, often quite witty and dark dialogue. It's particularly important for the actor playing Philip, who's intellectually nimble (the man loves anagrams) but psychologically and socially flat-footed. And Matthew Broderick doesn't quite fill the bill as an Oxford don determined not to offend -- but does...What's missing in Broderick's performance is the man's emotional destitution, the extra oomph that pushes Philip from being a sad-sack cartoon into a man bereft, a human being with no convictions except to please. It's a big hole to fill, and this production, directed by David Grindley, seems more stodgy and talky than it should be as it strains to fill that void...What transpires next is some sharp cocktail chatter, much of it supplied by a successful but overbearing novelist who has sold out for the big bucks. His narcissism has been perfectly captured by Jonathan Cake in what is the evening's most showy and consistently satisfying performance.
USA Today C+
(Elysa Gardner) The play, which addresses the limits of civil contemplation, requires a more complex protagonist. Even with gray hair and a tentative English accent, Broderick can't convey sufficient weight or weariness. That's a shame, because the ensemble here generally thrives under the thoughtful direction of David Grindley, who helmed a production of this play for the U.K.'s Donmar Warehouse in 2005. Anna Madeley, the one holdover from Donmar, is a pert, winning Celia, and Steven Weber brings a convincing ennui to Philip's more comfortably cynical colleague, Don. Jonathan Cake nearly steals the show from everyone as a smug, flamboyantly miserable novelist.
Talkin' Broadway C+
(Matthew Murray) Demonstrates the perils of casting to name rather than ability, appropriateness, or even basic type...Because the role is the center of the play, Broderick’s flabbiness of lack-of-personality is an insurmountable problem, regardless of how good everything else surrounding him may be. Unfortunately, everything else is pretty good. In his recent revivals of Journey’s End, Pygmalion, and The American Plan, Grindley has demonstrated a knack for digging into period delicacy (and sometimes indelicacy) and unearthing a recognizable, if often battle-scarred, humanity. He does that here as well, squeezing plenty of emotions from Hampton’s blistering critique of academic and political insularity that, because of Broderick, ultimately become the blood and guts of this easily cynical outing...It’s all intricately clever as written and intelligently (if traditionally) staged; and the supporting performances - particularly from Weber, Madeley (an import from the Donmar), and Cake (doing work even more glitteringly guttural than usual) - make things as real as they can be in this hopped-up comedy-of-too-many-manners.
New York C+
(Stephanie Zacharek) After a terrific, wicked opening scene, director David Grindley tries to keep the dialogue brisk, but he can’t prevent the material from feeling like a dozy lecture. The performers work hard but can’t hide the fact that they’re doing a lot of heavy lifting. Broderick shows the least strain, playing a docile thinker who has no illusions about what his flaws and capabilities are. When he explains, with unblinking resoluteness, “The truth is, I’m a man of no convictions—at least, I think I am,” he cuts to the heart of self-doubt, and you feel something for him. He opens a small breathing hole in this otherwise sealed-off play.
(Linda Winer) Whatever possessed the Roundabout Theatre Company to revive this mild little British satire about apathy during the most hyped-up politically engaged time in recent American history? Perhaps, if David Grindley's modest production of this talky play had filled the large stage with irresistibly attractive and articulate performances, we might have been swept up in the linguistic brilliance and never questioned its befuddling irrelevance. Then again, maybe not...It isn't easy to make a passive character interesting. Broderick, a career specialist in alienated innocents, knows just how to look lost at a party. He walks with a studied lack of affect, as if trying to balance a book on his head...Things only come alive, however, when Jonathan Cake - resplendently '70s in a purple striped velvet suit - strides into the party to be appalling as the successful novelist who kicks down facades of social concern and defends selfishness. I'm glad Cake keeps working until someone realizes that he's a star.
Wall Street Journal C-
(Terry Teachout) At once clever and aimless, "The Philanthropist" can't decide whether to be funny or serious, and never quite manages to be either. It doesn't help that the increasingly predictable Mr. Broderick gives more or less the same performance he gave four years ago in "The Odd Couple." Anna Madeley is pleasingly prickly in her Broadway debut as Celia, his exasperated fiancée, and I'd very much like to see her again -- in a better production of a better play.
(David Sheward) Philip is played by Matthew Broderick in a retread of his Leo Bloom–Felix Ungar pathetic-nerd persona, only this one has a slight British accent. It's an almost impossible role to bring off. You have to garner sympathy for a dry-as-toast intellectual whose passions are limited to words...Even so, Broderick fails to display much of Philip's inner life, and his witty dialogue rings hollow. In the other major male role, Steven Weber has a similar burden. The central dilemma of Philip's colleague Donald is his disgust at his own ennui. Like Broderick, Weber does not find the vital urgency inside this man bored by life. The rest of the cast are not hampered by Hampton with these insurmountable acting tasks and fare much better...Director David Grindley delivers a proficient enough production, handsomely designed by Tim Shortall to resemble a university library. Tobin Ost dresses the cast in the flashy duds of the period. A visit to this Philanthropist is like playing word games with a group of unpleasant new acquaintances. You get some mild mind exercise, but you don't really want to know your fellow players.
Village Voice C-
(Michael Feingold) Drifts away into dramatic nothingness, leaving no feeling behind, despite the many clever devices with which Hampton has tried to tighten it...This pallid setup generates some amusing theatrical games, but no drama. The minimal plot (will hapless hero get spunky girl in time for final clinch?), an old-fashioned standard model, works very well for Accent on Youth, of which The Philanthropist sometimes resembles a fogged mirror image. But it can't energize a work in which the hero is so pleasantly passive. Earlier productions, to dodge this defect, cast lead actors whose inner fire belied Philip's outward placidity, but Broderick's genius lies in the comedy of solipsism. He lures you into his dream world rather than stepping out into yours, but contentedly passive Philip has no such place.
(David Finkle) There's no question that playing a passive figure...poses challenges for an actor, but, Broderick simply doesn't meet enough of them. What is slightly strange is that the revival's director, David Grindley, had no trouble making this play work at London's Donmar Warehouse four years ago with Simon Russell Beale performing triumphantly. Is it the English accent that hobbles Broderick? Maybe...A missed opportunity for both Broderick and the audience.
American Theatre Web D+
(Andy Propst) "Philanthropist" is by no means a rollicking comedy, but in Grindley's laborious production, clever turns of phrase and cutting bon mots barely elicit wry smiles. The abstraction of the scenic design – which never grounds the action firmly – may have something to do with a distance that theatergoers feel from the action and its humor. Similarly, the bombast of liturgical music that punctuates scenes jars. Equally troubling is Broderick's performance – which seems like an Anglicized version of likeable wimps he's previously played. It never sparks to life so that audiences can find simultaneous bemusement in the predicament that Philip's genuine decency and goodwill causes and empathy for the pain it ultimately induces. The production does spring to life while Cake, wearing a gloriously showy purple striped leisure suit (just one of the terrific period ensembles from costume designer Tobin Ost) is center stage.
Bergen Record D
(Robert Feldberg) Watching a dull character who's front-and-center in a play can get tedious pretty quickly. And Broderick, playing it straight, doesn't offer the audience anything offbeat, some kind of humor, that might make Philip's passivity less irritating. "The Philanthropist" is a free-ranging satire that was written in 1970 by Christopher Hampton, when he was, remarkably, just 24. It has lots of tenuously related things going on, most of which were strikingly fresh and clever at the time of its premiere. They have less impact now because other playwrights have followed in Hampton's path...Whatever potential the material might have, this production doesn't make the most of it. Good-heartedness has seldom been less compelling.
Curtain Up D
(Elyse Sommer) A sleeper, and that's not in the sense of it being a sleeper hit...Strip Hampton's drawing room farce transported to a London university setting of its barrage of bon mots and the clever prologue...and all that's left is a talky play that does show its age...Broderick seems to have turned into a parody of himself...Entertaining as Philip's guests are, Broderick's out-to-lunch performance in the pivotal role has cast a dysfunctional pall over the entire production. It's as if Mr. Grindley had rowed rather than flown his production across the pond and in the process gotten stuck in a slow staging mode that makes the two hour play feel like the 24-hour period it covers.
Lighting & Sound America D
(David Barbour) Christopher Hampton apparently set out to build a comedy around a truly boring man. I'm afraid he has succeeded only too well...David Grindley's staging has been unable to clear away the cloud of smugness that hangs over the action like so much stale cigarette smoke. Most of the reviewers fingered Matthew Broderick as the culprit for infusing the title role with his trademark mannerisms. It is true that once again he's dragged out the stagy English accent that he used in The Foreigner -- the first time you hear it, you think it has to be joke -- as well as the glassy stare and disengaged line readings that have informed so many of his recent performances. But if The Philanthropist had some snap in its wit, these qualities probably would come across as assets...Given the thinly conceived characters, the dated attempts at provocation, and the remarkably witless dialogue, it's hard to see how The Philanthropist could be made to work under any circumstances...Matters aren't helped by Tim Shortall's enormous set.
The Daily News F+
(Joe Dziemianowicz) Unfortunately, it's hard to be generous about this zzzz-inducing Roundabout revival, which fails to flatter its star, director or the play...Although Broderick has patented his own brand of bland, from Broadway's "The Producers" to the big screen's "You Can Count on Me," he's out of his depth. He lacks the inner sparkle and quirkiness needed to make the innocuous Philip fascinating. Making matters worse is his veddy irritating "Masterpiece Theatre"-style accent. The staging by David Grindley ("Journey's End"), who directed the play in 2005 in London, is uniformly dull and coaxes little humor out of the script...Hampton's comedy hits one sharp note: Philip's chronic kindness is as harmful as Alceste's nonstop blackness. Beyond that, the notion that academics and eggheads are cut off and cocooned in their own world isn't so illuminating.
Bloomberg News F+
(Jeremy Gerard) I’ve rarely seen a star so wholly taken with a character’s social anemia that he drains an entire production of vitality and passion. No matter how dry the wit Hampton provides, Broderick is cold rain on the kindling. No sparks ignite...Grindley previously staged a revival of this play at London’s intimate Donmar Warehouse. Here, he’s thwarted not only by a designer (Tim Shortall) who emphasizes the vastness of the American Airlines Theatre stage, but by a cast that struggles mightily but failingly, to connect...Anna Madeley, as the brittle fiancee and, especially, Jonathan Cake, looking like a Vegas crooner in full plumage as a massively self-loving pop novelist, inject a trace of oxygen into the proceedings.
Time Out NY F+
(David Cote) Is Matthew Broderick on a deranged one-man mission to reduce theater's snappiest comic roles to mush? In the 2005 revival of The Odd Couple, he squandered laughs with the stiff-moving, squeaky-voiced, passive-nerd shtick that seems to be his default acting mode...Now he applies his method (do little, look uncomfortable) to a lesser-known but potentially rich part: painfully literal and anxiously ameliorative philologist Philip in Christopher Hampton's The Philanthropist. The 1970 academic satire is unabashedly talky and lacks action, which isn't a problem if you have actors who can juggle ideas and fill out the characters' inner and outer lives. Director David Grindley revived the piece at London's Donmar Warehouse in 2005 with Simon Russell Beale in the lead, and we can only imagine how bittersweetly hilarious it must have been. For this remarkably dull Roundabout version, Grindley retains the same set designer (Tim Shortall) and one actor from the U.K. production (pertly appealing Anna Madeley as Philip's frustrated fiancée). But Broderick's comatose line readings dilute the intellectual zest and dampen opportunities for humor. When Jonathan Cake swaggers on as a cynical novelist wearing a tight velvet suit, there are merciful chuckles, but too late.
AM New York F+
(Matt Windman) The play has not aged very well...Matthew Broderick, displaying a horrendous English accent, delivers a slight variation of the same one-note performance as a boyish, blissfully ignorant male that we’ve already seen in “The Producers” and “The Odd Couple”. Jonathan Cake, as a lecherous author, easily steals the show during his few moments onstage. While this production might have worked as a farce, David Grindley’s gentle direction does little to hide the play’s inadequacies.
The New York Times F
(Charles Isherwood) For sheer dullness, this putative comedy, directed by the talented David Grindley (“The American Plan”) for the Roundabout Theater Company and starring the talented but increasingly mannered Matthew Broderick, beats just about anything on Broadway this season...The bloodlessness of the writing is not wholly to blame; so too is the bloodless performance of Mr. Broderick in the central role. Offering little more than a British variant on the baby-faced milquetoasts he has portrayed on Broadway in “The Producers” and “The Odd Couple,” Mr. Broderick seems to be in his own play, some sort of sendup of a crummy farce from the British provinces circa 1930. The absurdly plummy accent is in bizarre contrast to the other performers’ natural ones, and Mr. Broderick’s moist eyes and stiff, dainty shuffle, meant to suggest emotional constipation, make him resemble a turtle with mutton chops. (Among the few pleasures of the production are the cheeky 1970s costumes by Tobin Ost.)
New York Post F
(Elisabeth Vincentelli) It's baffling to see marquee names like playwright Christopher Hampton (who just translated Yasmina Reza's "God of Carnage"), director David Grindley ("The American Plan") and Matthew Broderick ("Inspector Gadget") land with such a resounding thud. And yet here we are, scratching our heads in bored disbelief...The first fundamental problem is Tim Shortall's preposterously oversize set. The actors look lost in it, and Grindley makes matters worse by keeping them huddled on and around a couch plopped at the center. About half of the first act is dedicated to the most boring dinner party ever held in the British Isles, and the cast sits, yakking, for the entire duration. Did Grindley direct this by phone from London?...The third and most lethal issue is Broderick. By now, it should be clear to all that he needs a foil: He's never as good as when he plays the straight man, whether it's opposite Reese Witherspoon in "Election" or Nathan Lane in "The Producers."
Variety C+ 8; Associated Press C+ 8; USA Today C+ 8; Talkin' Broadway C+ 8; NY mag C+ 8; Newsday C 7; WSJ C- 6; Backstage C- 6; VV C- 6; Theatermania D+ 5; American Theatre Web D+ 5; Bergen Record D 4; Curtain Up D 4; L&SA D 4; The Daily News F+ 2; Bloomberg News F+ 2; Time Out NY F+ 2; AM New York F+ 2; The New York Times F 1; New York Post F 1; TOTAL: 97/20 = 4.85 (D+)