If they were at Cambridge University today, the six bright young things gathered at the start of The Common Pursuit would probably launch a website. But Simon Gray’s tidy, rueful little drama about the post-collegiate human weaknesses that stand in the way of maintaining high personal ideals and literary ambitions takes place in a earlier time: The play, now looking somewhat threadbare in an earnest Off Broadway revival at the Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre, was first performed in 1984. So the lofty goal under discussion is a printed literary magazine, itself called The Common Pursuit, the editorial brainchild of the financially struggling, high-minded, perpetually dissatisfied Stuart (Josh Cooke). On the business side, financially well-off, self-effacing, nerdy Martin (Jacob Fishel) volunteers to provide thankless assistance. Humphry the fussy, fine poet (Tim McGeever), Nick the self-created personality (Lucas Near-Verbrugghe), Peter the perpetual playboy (Kieran Campion), and Marigold the girlfriend (Kristen Bush) round out the sextet — all, not so subtly, in common pursuit of art and beauty and such. At least when the gang’s common windows yield views of university spires.
But then life happens over the next 20 years. And nothing turns out quite the way they imagined back in those halcyon Cantabrigian days. Nearly 30 years after its first London production (directed by Harold Pinter), The Common Pursuit isn’t quite the play it was either. The compromises, betrayals, and secrets feel smaller, almost touchingly so. In contrast, the similar losses of innocence shared by these Brits’ American counterparts in the movies Return of the Secaucus Seven (1979) or The Big Chill (1983) have deepened in resonance over time. (For this fan of dramas about university friends and their futures, the gold standard remains the great 1976 BBC mini-series The Glittering Prizes, by Frederic Raphael.)
Gray (1936-2008) was a prolific novelist, memoirist, and playwright (Butley, Otherwise Engaged, Quartermaine’s Terms) who specialized in the witty-yet-poignant problems of tweed-covered British academics and intellectuals; as a long-time university lecturer in English literature, he knew the turf well. And director Moisés Kaufman (Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, 33 Variations) does everything he can to heighten the contrast between the characters’ bright and articulate chattiness and the undercurrent of loss and sadness. The fellows (and the girlfriend) are forever moving around the pleasantly wallpapered stage, from chair to desk to doorway, as if impelled by the antsiness of compromise. The performances fan out in a range of quality, from the excellent subtleties of Jacob Fishel as Martin (the designated ”uncool” one), to Near-Verbrugghe’s ingratiating flamboyance as Nick (the one naturally destined for TV success), to the confusing signals sent out by Cooke as Stuart (the always peeved one). Gray’s subplot involving homosexual tragedy, by the way, feels particularly 1980s. That may be a measure of social progress in today’s world, but it only adds to The Common Pursuit’s time-dated limitations. B-
(Tickets: roundabouttheatre.org or 212-719-1300)