Our production of Christopher Hampton's The Philanthropist has allowed me to bring back some outstanding members of the Roundabout family. David Grindley, of course, is the talented director of last season’s Pygmalion, and I was eager to work with him once again. And it’s wonderful to welcome back the great Matthew Broderick, who last appeared at the Laura Pels Theatre in The Foreigner.
Last year, we were privileged to present the first Broadway revival of Christopher Hampton’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses, and I am thrilled to be doing his work once again. That play was a brilliant adaptation that came in the middle of this playwright’s stunning and wide-ranging career. What’s so fantastic about The Philanthropist is that it is one of Hampton’s earlier works (written in 1970 when he was just 24 years old!), and it has both the cheeky edge of that young writer and the incisiveness of the master observer of human behavior we have come to know over the years.
The Philanthropist tells the story of Philip, a member of the insular world of college intellectuals with the distinguishing characteristic of liking absolutely everything and everyone he encounters. While others profess strongly-held opinions or pursue inescapable romantic urges, Philip just can’t work himself up into a lather about anything. As he says himself, he doesn’t even have “the courage of my lack of convictions.”
What’s fascinating about this play is watching the hilarious and telling ways in which people react to Philip’s total neutrality. His seemingly harmless lack of subjectivity leads those around him to project on this blank slate of a man whatever they want – if they want an argument, they assume that he is disagreeing with them; if they want to incite a seduction, they assume that his passivity is acceptance – and that’s where things start to get intriguingly messy.
Essentially, Hampton has created Philip to be an inversion of Alceste, the character from Moliere’s The Misanthrope who hated absolutely everything and everyone he encountered, and who had no trouble in expressing his distaste. Side by side, the two characters make you wonder – is an excess of opinions really worse than an absence of them? Alceste may be insufferable in his constant displeasure, but is a man who is incapable of reacting strongly to even the most outlandish of circumstances any better?
These are the questions that, to me, make this play so remarkable. While turning The Misanthrope on its head, Hampton has also created a witty comedy of manners with an undercurrent of emotional devastation and at least one highly theatrical surprise that will catch even the most astute theatergoer off-guard. Needless to say, I consider that kind of writing to be no easy feat. It’s an unpredictable, thrillingly unique play, and I know that this first Broadway revival is in the best of hands with David Grindley and this amazing cast.
I look forward to seeing you at the theatre!
2008-2009 Season, The Philanthropist