Christopher Hampton’s comedy The Philanthropist gets off to a bang — literally — in a short scene set that dramatically compresses Chekhov’s rule about guns introduced in plays. (Apparently you don’t need to wait till the third act for them to go off.) But from that explosive opening, Hampton’s gloss on Molière’s Le Misanthrope — set in a British university in 1970 — settles into a somnambulant geniality, with a few casual witticisms sprinkled in the mix until a lethally dull second act.
It’s hard to fathom why the Roundabout Theatre Company chose to revive this relic by the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Dangerous Liaisons and Atonement. The chief draw was probably the typecasting of Matthew Broderick as (ho-hum) yet another sexually unprecocious man-child, this time with a shaky British accent. He plays Philip, an anagram-loving, literal-minded language professor of such pathological obtuseness that he’s equally clueless about the desires of his fiancée (Anna Madeley) and a sexually frank young woman who makes a pass at him (Jennifer Mudge). His flat mop of hair now more gray than brown, the visibly stockier Broderick is rather too old for this shtick. And the shtick seems far too old for him.
Only two performers on stage seem to be having any fun, or providing any for the audience. Samantha Soule gets a surprising number of laughs as a mousy young woman cowed into silence at a dinner party Philip throws. And the ever-engaging Jonathan Cake, dressed in an outrageous ’70s-era striped purple suit, tears into his role as a pompous, self-absorbed novelist. Of course, he does get all of the show’s best lines (e.g., ”Masturbation is the thinking man’s television”), which he tosses off with the studied casualness of a true narcissist. Unfortunately, neither actor makes an appearance in the show’s stultifying second act. Even the belated reappearance of a gun can’t save the show. C-
(Tickets: www.roundabouttheatre.org or 212-719-1300)