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The Common Pursuit

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Jacob Fishel, Josh Cooke, Lucas Near-Verbrugghe, Kieran Campion, Kristen Bush, and Tim McGeever.
Photo by Joan Marcus

Late in The Common Pursuit, the Simon Gray play that Roundabout is now reviving at its Off-Broadway Laura Pels Theatre, two characters tussle over the writing to which they've devoted their lives. Is sacrificing years, countless dollars, and potentially rewarding family opportunities to a nearly unread literary journal the definition of contemporary nobility? Or is, say, shunting a piece intended for said publication to one that will get wider notice (in this case, Vogue) a reasonable compromise between personal and professional aesthetics? If you find this question compelling, you'll easily take to Mois├ęs Kaufman's sturdy, studied production, as that's what it most deeply investigates.

If that subject isn't for you, there are still pleasures to be had here, but you'll have to work harder to find them. With this play, which was originally produced in New York in 1986, Gray may have been returning to the publishing and university settings he had previously investigated in Otherwise Engaged and Butley, but his goals were decidedly more mundane. Although his characters begin at Cambridge in the mid 1960s and progress through a turbulent decade and a half of societal and self-inflicted turmoil, the work is less a critique or satire of their attitudes than (yet another) exploration of how who you may want to be is often very different from the person you'll become.

It may not be an especially original notion, but at least Gray commits to it right from the opening scene. That's when, at Cambridge, we meet Stuart (Josh Cooke), the founder of the central journal (which shares the play's title), who's as dedicated to propagating careful craft and criticism as he is to his girlfriend Marigold (Kristen Bush). Joining the pair in this endeavor are the milquetoast Martin (Jacob Fishel), the stuffy Humphry (Tim McGeever), the achingly virginal Nick (Lucas Near-Verbrugghe), and the stressless gadabout Peter (Kieran Campion). All they seem to have in common are their youth, energy, and aspirations, but otherwise they're a toxic sextet.

Gray proves this over the course of the following three scenes, in which the plots and passions he establishes are furthered then exploded as Stuart struggles to keep the publication and his life with Marigold afloat, Martin becomes an intermittently destructive catalyst in Stuart's life, Humphry loosens up with disastrous consequences, Nick becomes a chain-smoking womanizer usually on the verge (and sometimes beyond it) of selling out, and Peter finds himself bound by chains he had once never considered. The overall effect is very much along the lines of Merrily We Roll Along, with young idealism giving way too easily to an acerbic, jaded middle age. (Like Merrily, the final scene even yanks us back to the past's earliest, happiest times.)

For all its faux pretensions, this is ultimately an extra pulpy soap opera—characters and situations change on a moment's notice, and are usually upended completely in the years-long gaps between scenes—and greatly benefits from having the juice of one. Kaufman instead emphasizes the emotional truth and psychological depth of the play, but rarely to effervescent effect. His overly serious and visibly weighty style, which of course infects the actors as well, hampers the fun of the first scene and disrupts the ideally addictive nature of what's to come. This may make The Common Pursuit more real, but it also lessens its edge because we don't see the necessary evolution (or, perhaps more appropriately, devolution) of the people we're following.

The play becomes, then, a collection of snapshots of simmering discontent that are not given the opportunity to boil over. Granted, the performers all have serious trouble linking the hopeful twentysomethings of Act I with the battle-scarred middle-agers they must play after intermission, in no small part because they all appear much darker and older than the script demands. (Only Marigold believably develops over the story's 16-year span, with Bush nicely charting how her choices come back to haunt her.) But because Kaufman stages the word rather than the spirit of what Gray wrote, neither they nor you have much of a chance. Even Derek McLane's scenic design, an uncomfortable blend of two- and three-dimensional set pieces, feels like it's constantly at war with itself.

To the extent there's an upshot to this approach, it's that this incarnation of The Common Pursuit is a full-bodied dissection of the question of where the line is between elitism and populism. Grappling with, and often being trampled by, the standards and dreams they believe will sustain them transforms the characters into a heady (and useful) metaphor for both America's shifting political landscape and the effect the World Wide Web is having on the way we write and read today. All this, however, makes Gray's play into exactly the kind of overly intellectual meditation it's always been a deceptive corrective to. Rather than The New York Review of Books, it should be a little more like, well, Vogue.

The Common Pursuit
Through July 29
Roundabout Theatre Company at the Laura Pels Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, 111 West 46th Street
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