Is total sincerity the key to maintaining healthy relationships, or should people bend the truth now and again to spare each other's feelings? That's the underlying dilemma facing seven disparate academic types in Germinal Stage Denver's production of The Philanthropist, Christopher Hampton's charming and erudite "bourgeois comedy."
Among other exploits, the crafty linguist has translated plays by Yasmina Reza (the international hit Art, which recently breezed through Denver), Chekhov, Ibsen, Molière and even an obscure Austrian playwright. He's also adapted the screenplay for Les Liaisons Dangereuses and won a Tony for writing the book for the Broadway musical Sunset Boulevard; Hampton first gained notice in 1968 by penning Total Eclipse, which explored the relationship between the French poets Rimbaud and Verlaine. He's also been known to sprinkle political statements throughout his ticklishly offbeat dialogue (his 1973 play Savages, for instance, raised questions about the colonization of indigenous peoples long before activists deemed the cause fashionable).
Given his flair for manipulating language, it's not surprising that this 1970 effort oozes with witty observations about the finer points of human communication. Some of the banter in The Philanthropist is aimed at bleeding-heart liberals and stiff-necked reactionaries alike -- an oblique form of verbal double-dealing that director Ed Baierlein orchestrates to humorous effect. In fact, Philip (Eric Field) and Don (Marc K. Moran), a pair of professors who live down the hall from each other at an unnamed British university, have made it a habit to turn their discussions about liberal phrasemaking and the state of education into talks about prevailing social issues and personal relationships. And the reverse is true when the middle-aged tipplers broaden their regular get-togethers to include Philip's fiancée, Celia (Suzanna Wellens), two young socialites, Araminta (Lisa M. Beinetti) and Liz (Jamie Powers), a published author named Braham (Jamie Menard), and an intense drama student, John (Josh Hartwell), who loses his head while reading aloud from his revolutionary playscript. Later, when Celia threatens to break off her engagement with Philip over a mutual act of betrayal, the emotionally generous professor is forced to question the wisdom of leading a syntactically correct existence.
It's a pleasure to take in a modern sophisticated comedy in which language, wit and character take center stage, especially as performed against a tasteful backdrop that lends some warmth to the somewhat dry and ethereal goings-on (Stephen R. Kramer designed the setting). While some of the scenes lack vocal variety and shading, most of the actors revel in Hampton's rhetorical sparring without overplaying or putting too fine a point on things. Field is particularly endearing as the plodding and guileless Philip, whose obsession with linguistic specificity is exceeded only by his devotion to sincerity and his capacity for self-deprecation. Smiling at the sensitive student playwright in his midst, he cheerily says, "I like a play no matter how terrible it is"; a few minutes later, he happily confesses to Don, "I can't teach literature; I have no critical faculties." And when Philip finds himself trapped in the middle of a morning-after mess, he attempts to tiptoe through the romantic minefield he's created by telling his lover, "The truth is, I don't really find you attractive" -- a well-meaning snippet that, as innocently delivered here, is the verbal equivalent of an exploding cigar.
The strong supporting cast is led by Moran's sharp-tongued alcoholic, who "works to perfect a kind of idleness that will be unparalleled in academic history." The talented actor has little difficulty locating Don's loathsome and cynical sides and also summons a measure of devout resignation when he commiserates with Philip by saying, "What is friendship if not the chance to indulge in mutual self-pity?" Menard is properly reprehensible as the brutish prig who thinks that everyone, stranger or no, wants to hear him blare such unvarnished aphorisms as "Masturbation is the thinking man's television" and "Secularism is about as much use to this country as a polo stick to a paraplegic." Wellens rises to the occasion during her Act Two confrontation with Field; upon her final exit, it's not hard to understand why Celia believes that she's incapable of loving a man as weak as Philip. Beinetti spices up the proceedings during Araminta's on-again, off-again seduction scene; rather than implode when Celia tosses an insult her way, she throws out an equally zippy rejoinder without a trace of stereotypical cattiness. Hartwell hits the right notes during his brief appearance at the top of the play. And despite the fact that Powers is afforded but one rather inconsequential line, the winsome actress demonstrates that nonverbal communication can be as meaningful as whole volumes of the spoken kind. Which, given playwright Hampton's love of wordplay and verbosity, seems like a novel idea indeed.
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