The Theater: Verbal Pingpong

Picture a concert pianist of great technical skill whose fingers race across the keyboard like a riptide. Suddenly his face turns soulful, as if he were attempting to hang each note in the air like a snowflake. With a brisk, dryly ironic flourish he brings the composition to its close. But through the entire piece, the instrument has been soundless.

There you have an approximation of a newly imported British comedy, The Philanthropist. Playwright Christopher Hampton, 24, is witty, clever, debonair; he uses the English language with sly gusto and rare affection. He has given an impressive display of that affection in...

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