Jonathan Cake, Matthew Broderick, and Steven Weber
in The Philanthropist
(© Joan Marcus)
Jonathan Cake, Matthew Broderick, and Steven Weber
in The Philanthropist
(© Joan Marcus)
Don't get me wrong. I'm a big Matthew Broderick fan. I've liked him since his early stage-acting days when, among other assignments, he was the bemused teenager in Torch Song Trilogy. I've admired him in everything since, including his underrated turn as Felix Unger in the Odd Couple revival. (Treasuring his Leo Bloom in The Producers goes without saying.) That's why I expected he'd be ideal as the title character in the Roundabout Theatre's revival of Christopher Hampton's 1970 comedy The Philanthropist, now being presented at the American Airlines Theatre. But I'm mystified at the problems he's having as he portrays reticent philologist Philip -- problems that loom rather large when the character is focal but lacks demanding focus.

There's no question that playing a passive figure -- which is what Philip is in spades -- 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.

Moliere lovers will instantly spot that Hampton had a British wit's notion to set the 17th-century French playwright's The Misanthrope on its head. Instead of presenting a man who hates the human race and won't shut up about it, Hampton has created a man who sees no bad in anyone. A university academic whose career is based on a fascination with words, the tweedy Philip occasionally finds the measured words to express his contentment with what goes on around him. He also gets himself right when he haltingly strings together the words: "I'm a man of no convictions -- at least I think I am."

The play takes place over a 24-hour period -- not counting a Pirandellian prologue involving a student (Tate Ellington) reading an original play and a revolver -- during which Philip gives a party co-hosted by his quasi-fiancee Celia (the bristling Anna Madeley, imported from the Donmar production). Their assorted guests are self-impressed best-selling author Braham (hilariously macho Jonathan Cake), colleague Don (a polished Steven Weber, who replaced Broderick in The Producers), man-loving Araminta (perky, giggly Jennifer Mudge) and quiet Elizabeth (Samantha Soule, attention-getting while never speaking).

It's during that party -- dominated by the provocative Braham in a velvet suit that reeks of the wide-lapelled era -- and its morning-after mayhem when Philip is forced to examine his unbridled tolerance for everybody and everything (which includes the report of a madman murdering the entire front-bench occupiers in the House of Commons). When at party's end, Celia - who is longing to stay the night -- is dismissed by Philip, and Araminta insists on staying, Philip's bell-jar world cracks.

Sadly, Broderick practically disappears in this crucial first act get-together. Granted, Philip is intended to disappear while Braham prattles on with shock value in mind, but it's the character, not the actor, who is supposed to fade from focus. Broderick does better in the second act, particularly in a one-on-one scene with Don, when they both unburden themselves of personal misgivings. For the most part, however, The Philanthropist is a missed opportunity for both Broderick and the audience.