MOISÉS KAUFMAN STAGES “THE COMMON PURSUIT” AT THE LAURA PELS THEATRE
BY HENRY EDWARDS
Simon Gray’s “The Common Pursuit,” first seen in London’s West End in 1984 in a production directed by Harold Pinter, went on to receive a 1986 Off-Broadway edition featuring, among others, Nathan Lane and Dylan Baker.
Thus Roundabout's Off-Broadway revival at the Laura Pels Theatre, directed by Moisés Kaufman, provides a rare opportunity to experience a play that audiences (especially those with Anglophilic leanings) may have heard about but have never seen or to revisit the work of a recently deceased British writer who, despite numerous successes, seems to have disappeared from view.
Gray wrote funny, darkly melancholic plays—the best known are the bitingly comic “Butley” and “Otherwise Engaged"—provided a mix of intellectuality and popular middlebrow drama, featuring highly educated, literate professionals who, finding that words had failed them, utilized irony as a defense.
Gray attended Trinity College, Cambridge, where he studied under the literary critic F.R. Leavis. Gray's teacher stressed the importance of an informed and discriminating, highly-trained intellectual elite whose existence within university English departments would help preserve the all-important cultural continuity of English life and literature.
In his most popular book of criticism, "The Common Pursuit," Leavis argued for the creation of "discriminatory criticism," consisting of clear statements about what is good and morally mature and admirable, and equally clear condemnation of what is trivial.
That Leavis had a profound effect on Gray’s career as a writer and teacher is exemplified by the fact that Gray took the title of his play, "The Common Pursuit," from the title of Leavis's book.
Not surprisingly, Gray's play is an Oxbridge version of “The Big Chill.
"The Common Pursuit" follows a sextet of 1960’s Cambridge undergraduates, consisting of idealistic student Stuart Thorne (Josh Cooke), his girlfriend, Marigold (Kristen Bush, and four young men enlisted enlisted by Stuart to help launch a new literary magazine devoted to the pursuit of literary excellence. The magazine is to be called (what else?) The Common Pursuit.
Stuart's enlistees include Martin Musgrove (Jacob Fishel), wealthy but lacking creativity so he will take care of business; Humphry Taylor (Tim McGeever), brilliant and stuffy; Peter Whetworth (Kieran Campion), a major womanizer; and bad boy Nick Finchling (Lucas Near-Verbrugghe).
Although Stuart refuses compromise his high literary standards, over the next twenty years, everyone else's standards erode as life offers up a series of betrayals, professional and personal, resulting in an elegiac lament for the failed ideals of Oxford grads.
It would appear that everything F.R. Leavis dreaded, the students eventually became, and although the similarity to Stephen Sondheim and George Furth's "Merrily We Roll Along" may be accidental, it also seems uncanny.
Needless to say, there is nothing particularly original about the idea that undergraduate ideals are doomed never to succeed in the real world. Yet "The Common Pursuit" is literate and intelligent.
It also cries out for a cast that can bring real passion to the rather rarified drama (or lack thereof) of starting and maintaining a literary magazine mainly devoted to great contemporary poetry.
Moisés Kaufman's cast works hard, substituting earnestness for passion. Kaufman directs them for laughs in the first half and they often seem far too silly. In the second half, they work up some real steam, but no one is charismatic to make the audience really care.
It's also hard to believe these American actors really are upper-class Brits.
"The Common Pursuit" is a play about academia that satisfies one's academic curiosity about the play —no more and no less—and one should at least be grateful for that.
Roundabout Theatre Company’s production of “The Common Pursuit” at the Laura Pels Theatre is scheduled to run through July 29 www.roundabouttheatre.org).