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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

at the American Airlines Theater


  Jennifer Mudge and Matthew Broderick/Ph: Joan Marcus

The eponymous hero of Christopher Hampton's ivy-covered 1969 comedy is not only a philanthropist, but also a philologist and, unexpectedly, a philanderer. He's even named Phil. But apparently all that overdetermination isn't enough. The new Broadway production, directed by David Grindley, presents him as a fool as well. And while the timid professor, who says that he lacks "critical faculties," may be as dull as he is undiscerning and completely disconnected from real life, reducing him to an idiot leaves this already problematic play foundering.

Set in the staid living quarters of the mindbogglingly bland Phil (Matthew Broderick), the play meanders through his misadventures as he and his neurotic fiancee Celia (Anna Madeley) muddle through a bitchy, unpleasant evening with other academics, including a self-centered, arrogant author (Jonathan Cake) an academic of easy virtue (Jennifer Mudge) and Donald (Steven Weber), an earnest type who seems to be Phil's only friend. After this exciting evening, in the second act, they discuss at great length its repercussions for their relationship. Meantime, to point up this group's disconnection, in the world outside, the Prime Minister has been shot and a terrorist group is gunning for the top authors in Britain.

The play's supposedly a riff on Moliere's Le Misanthrope, but the joke is not so much that Phil is a philanthropist as that he's a literalist. He does claim to like people, but he doesn't know the first thing about them, just as he professes a love of words but is oblivious to how they're used. He assumes that people mean what they say-and will take his statements at face value, too. Of course in the backbiting world of academe, his sincerity is interpreted as scathing sarcasm by those who don't know him and barely tolerated by his bored friends.

For this talky, tedious play to work at all, Phil has to be sympathetic, but with Broderick's cartoonish portrayal, this production makes Phil not simply out of step, but stupid. Broderick bumbles around the stage in an oversized sweater and when he delivers a line, it's like the whole otherwise overintellectualized play suddenly lapses into slo-mo. Like people? He doesn't even interact with them. Carrying on despite this histrionic black hole, his fast-talking, hyper-articulate pals keep up a constant chatter that does offer a few fragments of entertainment. As the bearded boorish writer Braham, Cake has some choice moments responding to the holes he thinks Phil's poking in his facade, and Weber manages to make Donald the play's most likable character. Madeley brings a shrill, restless conviction to both the frustration and the fondness Celia feels for Phil, though she's hampered by the dated sexual politics of the script. Yet all these fine actors can do falls flat. In the face of Broderick's stiff, stylized delivery. The drama loses what spirit and sparkle it might once have had and what's left is dull, dreary, and, frankly, pretty dreadful.


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