Sunday, November 29, 2020


Alec McCowen

THE PHILANTHROPIST [Comedy/British/Romance/Sex/University] A: Christopher Hampton; D: Robert Kidd; S: John Gunter; C: Sara Brook; L: Lloyd Burlingame; P: David Merrick i/a/w Byron Goldman and Michael Codron i/a/w the Royal Court Theatre; T: Ethel Barrymore Theatre; 3/15/71-5/15/71 (64)

Alec McCowen, Jane Asher.

A largely British cast played this verbally rich intellectual British comedy with great finesse. The Philanthropist was a clever modern-day version of Molière’s The Misanthrope, with Philip (Alec McCowen), its eponymous hero, a reverse image of the bitter Alceste. Philip, a self-effacing philology professor, indiscriminately likes everybody and hates to make anyone unhappy. Among other things, his basic ineffectuality leads Celia (Jane Asher), the clever and pretty young woman he loves to leave him. (Beatles' fans may remember Jane Asher as Paul McCartney's ex-girlfriend.)

Several critics noted that the play’s two acts were in varying styles, the first being a charming sex comedy, the second a verbose round of discussions. Also suggestive of the author’s indeterminate purpose were elements of extreme violence inserted into the plot, including a shocking opening scene in which a young playwright blows his brains out on stage, splattering a wall with gore. Hampton’s purposes in using such material were not always clear.

Among very positive responses to this often graceful and amusing comedy, which Martin Gottfried called “lesser Noel Coward,” was Jack Kroll’s that it “has the authentic dazzle, the sense of surprise and control, that marks the real thing, the artist.” Clive Barnes called it “a good, funny, literate and literary play,” possessing a structure “both belligerent and apt.” But Douglas Watt saw “no play at all” and John Lahr termed it “a clever phony. . . . The play’s clumsy construction and facile intuition of pain are galling since it chooses to pass itself off as serious comedy.”

All agreed that McCowen’s marvelous performance was largely responsible for whatever delight the work provided. T.E. Kalem reported that “He has a feel for the role that is as sensitive as a safecracker’s fingertips. . . . At one point, he is the bemused, absent-minded professor, at another the twinkling champion of verbal ping-pong, and at still another, an anguished human with a parched heart.”

McCowen was rewarded with a Tony nomination for Best Actor, Play, and a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Performance. Hampton won Variety’s poll as the Most Promising New Playwright, and Ed Zimmerman, who played Donald, was nominated for a Tony in the Best Supporting Actor, Play, category.

Company members included Victor Spinetti, Caroline Lagerfelt, Paul Corum, and Penelope Wilton. My friend, Sara Brook, who did the costumes, recalls that the actors had all worked together before and were close, so the show's failure here came as a big disappointment to them.