Revival of a bright, brittle English comedy
New York — The Philanthropist. Comedy by Christopher Hampton. Directed by Andre Ernotte. Christopher Hampton's ''The Philanthropist'' is still as bright, brittle, and satirically pertinent as when it arrived on Broadway some 12 years ago in a production by the Royal Court Theatre of London. At that time, the ''bourgeois comedy'' received mixed notices and lasted only nine weeks. It was, however, included by Otis L. Guernsey Jr. in ''The Best Plays of 1970-1971,'' a discerning choice.
Philip, the doggedly literal-minded hero of Mr. Hampton's satire, was then the latest in the line of academic losers stretching from Crocker-Harris of Terrence Rattigan's ''The Browning Version'' to Simon Gray's Butley and anticipating Mr. Gray's Quartermaine of the current, long-running ''Quartermaine's Terms.''
Philip (David McCallum), a philology professor, is a whiz at anagrams. For instance, he explains to a group of dinner guests that his advice to writers is ''make real shapes'' - an anagram of ''Shakespeare'' and ''Hamlet.'' Unfortunately, Philip is a dub at human relations, frequently missing the point of what is being said to him and giving offense where none was intended. He confesses: ''I'm a man of no convictions - at least I think I am.'' His frivolous fiancee, Celia (Glenne Headly), puts it more harshly when she likens Philip to ''a pudding, wobbling gently.''
As a deftly comic playwright, Mr. Hampton has other things on his mind than Philip's butter-fingered ineptitude. Climaxing its first scene with a gory coup de theatre, ''The Philanthropist'' comments satirically on society's callous unconcern about violence, the frailties of ideological commitment, the prevalence of casual infidelity, and other aspects of contemporary human behavior not necessarily confined to university cloisters. Mr. Hampton placed his bleak comedy ''in the near future.'' It's a murky prospect.
The performance staged by Andre Ernotte at the Manhattan Theatre Club keeps faith with Mr. Hampton's view of collegial life. The melancholy beneath the laughter is centrally personified in Mr. McCallum's well-tempered Philip, so kind, safe, reliable, and a little bit dull. When Celia chides him for apologizing too often, he replies: ''Yes I know. I'm sorry.'' One cannot help feeling sympathy for such an intellectual duffer. As the impatient, ultimately disaffected Celia, Miss Heady can be touching as well as sharp tongued.
Benjamin Hendrickson does a bravura bit as an obnoxious best-selling novelist who ''had to abandon the left for tax reasons.'' British academic life is believably represented by a superior cast that includes Anthony Heald as Philip's concerned colleague, Robin Bartlett as a voracious man chaser, Cherry Jones as a pretty girl who knows how to half-smile and listen, and Brent Spiner as a would-be playwright of desperate intentions. They bring the touch of nature needed to make ''The Philanthropist'' more than the sum of its epigrams and anagrams.
Philip's comfortably academic digs have been designed by Kate Edmunds, with costumes by Linda Fisher and lighting by F. Mitchell Dana. Eric Rissler Thayer fills the interludes with the stereophonic sounds of classical music.