Watching “The Philanthropist,” a moribund revival of a 1969 play by Christopher Hampton that opened Sunday night at the American Airlines Theater, is like being stuck in a stuffy room with a bunch of pompous, malicious or dreary writers and academics.
Actually, the fig leaf of simile is unnecessary. Watching “The Philanthropist” is quite literally a matter of being stuck in a stuffy room with a bunch of pompous, malicious or dreary writers and academics. Or at least actors portraying them. 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.
Set in the university living chambers of a mild-mannered philologist, the play is a contemporary gloss on “The Misanthrope,” Molière’s celebrated satire about a truth-telling man-hater fuming and fussing amid the prancing poseurs of aristocratic society. Mr. Hampton, the British playwright, screenwriter and author of many translations and adaptations (“Les Liaisons Dangereuses” and, this season, the acclaimed revival of “The Seagull” as well as Yasmina Reza’s “God of Carnage”), saw in the insular, back-biting world of British academia a useful analog for the airless hothouse of 17th-century French court life.
Like “The Misanthrope,” Mr. Hampton’s play is primarily a character study. But unlike Molière’s Alceste, who sees venality, hypocrisy and stupidity wherever he casts his eye, Mr. Hampton’s Philip (Mr. Broderick) is a blithe cheerleader for humanity. He invariably speaks his mind, as did Alceste, but instead of wall-to-wall bile, his sunny psyche is stuffed with fresh flowers. The joke: His honest kindliness is continually mistaken, in the decadent atmosphere of academe, for subtle but sharp malice.
Unfortunately the comic payoff for Mr. Hampton’s elaborate conceit is dismayingly thin. It is mildly funny to watch as an egotistical young student playwright (Tate Ellington) and subsequently an insufferably self-satisfied novelist (Jonathan Cake) fly into seething rages when faced with Philip’s blandly sincere compliments, mistaking them for jabs from a silk-wrapped rapier.
Philip’s romantic confusions also inspire a few ticklish moments. His fiancée, Celia (Anna Madeley), accepts a ride home from the predatory novelist when her hints about wanting to spend the night with Philip are blandly rebuffed. (Philip thought she really wanted to help clear the dishes and would not presume to trouble her.) And Philip’s unwilling seduction by another comely young woman, Araminta (Jennifer Mudge), almost rises to the level of farce when Celia returns unexpectedly and finds a rival sitting down to her corn flakes.
But the long, long stretches of high-toned banter, in which the novelist jokingly makes a case for immorality as a moral stand, or Celia merrily eviscerates the faculty, mocking their physical and mental frailties in vicious detail, are simply not very funny. (It’s no fault of Mr. Cake and Ms. Madeley, who both give precise, focused performances.)
These smug intellectuals, who also include Philip’s close friend Donald (the likewise fine Steven Weber), are so self-involved they scarcely register an “I say” when they witness an act of violence or news arrives of a bloody attack on the government. But since “The Philanthropist” was first staged in London in 1970 (it played briefly on Broadway the following year), we have lived through the death and resurrection of irony at least once. Today the eloquent obliviousness of these highbrows scarcely raises a smile, let alone a gasp of amused outrage.
As the marvelous revival of Alan Ayckbourn’s “Norman Conquests” has handily proven, British comedies of manners do not have to lose their sting in making the transatlantic journey, or erode as they weather the years. (Mr. Ayckbourn’s 1973 trilogy is almost as old as “The Philanthropist.”) But in contrast to Mr. Ayckbourn’s richly, ridiculously human characters, Mr. Hampton’s are mostly etiolated shells, to borrow a fancy adjective trotted out at one point, and thus tiresome company. Mr. Grindley, whose meticulous direction of both “American Plan” this season and “Journey’s End” (2007) have been justly approved, brings a similar care to this play, but he cannot generate many sparks of human drama from the soggy tinder of Mr. Hampton’s self-consciously clever dialogue.
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.)
In the second act, when the comedy subsides and we are meant to feel sympathy for Philip’s alienation — “I haven’t even got the courage of my lack of convictions,” he wanly, wittily observes — it is impossible to see beyond the cartoon figure in a slouchy cardigan to the aching human being inside it.
The play desperately needs the wistful inwardness that Simon Russell Beale, who has made a career specialty of wistful inwardness, reportedly brought to his performance as Philip in the production Mr. Grindley directed at the Donmar Warehouse in London in 2005. Mr. Broderick’s sad-eyed clowning, all on the surface, is an unsatisfactory substitute.