by Simon Gray
Directed by Moisés Kaufman
A Production of the Roundabout Theatre Company
at the Laura Pels Theatre

Reviewed by David Spencer

What I found striking in the aftermath of watching the Roundabout revival of the late Simon Gray’s The Common Pursuit seemed, at first, to have little to do with reviewing this particular production on its own merits. But it kept badgering my subconscious as relevant and it is only now, in the act of starting to type something to kick off my notice, that I realize why the observation I allude to is entirely relevant; more perhaps to the play than to the production, but testament to why the production is worth your time.

                        The Common Pursuit is, on the surface, a fairly straightforward drama (with aspects of comedy) about six Cambridge students who join forces over the creation of an independent literary magazine. Over four long scenes and a short coda, spanning 20 years, it chronicles their efforts to stay true to the things they believe in and each other, and as all that takes its toll, the inevitable dissolution of the ties that bind them as a group.

                        But—and this is what struck me—though it would seem to fall into the school of realism for its presentation, within that it’s open to an astonishing range of directorial imprimaturs, and a possibly even wider range of casting choices. It is common, of course, for a play to be subject to different interpretations, rhythms and “feels”; but whereas something poetic that can accommodate largeness of gesture—say from the Shakespeare canon—provides a wide-open field…realism, and in particular realism that requires a knack for comedy and verbal wordplay, allows you a rather narrow corridor, and that’s because it’s rooted to things that are not poetic: era, culture, attitude, fashion, level of technology; one way or another, the play still has to emerge as authentic and believable.

                        When I first saw The Common Pursuit in 1986, at the Promenade, directed by the playwright himself, it had a bright, clipped energy, at times an almost musical one (indeed, Nathan Lane was in the cast as the most dissolute member of the sextet). The 1992 BBC-TV version, which dropped the article from its title and was “opened up” to particularize some offstage things only alluded to in the play, directed on film by Christopher Morahan, has a quiet “indie film” simplicity to it, and at times a surprisingly slow (yet nonetheless mesmerizing) pace, even in dialogical exchanges that some might naturally perform more energetically. Now, today, as directed by Moisés Kaufman, the revival at the Laura Pels lands somewhere between the two: its pace is appropriately to-the-point, but its overall approach is a little bit muted—not suppressed, but more intimate, in a way—as if not to overstate the various character archetypes, letting casting, text and fine adjustment as the characters age, be more implicit than accentuated.

                        And in each incarnation, the play has been fine, compelling and sometimes surprisingly moving. Of the Simon Gray plays I know (which isn’t close to being a representative proportion; at best representative of the ones that have achieved a foothold in the US), it may well be the sturdiest, because it’s the one in which all of the characters strive to be better (however flawed they may be in the process) and none are past the point of the meaningful redemption which proves unavailable to Butley’s energetically lazy disdain, Quartermaine’s oblivious ineffectuality or Simon Hench’s cruel detachment (Otherwise Engaged). Though all are subject to a range of joyful triumph and devastating heartbreak; and the ironies of the two juxtaposed.

                        And that’s why you should see it, really. Why I seem not to have reviewed the production so much as the play; and not even the play so much as what it is that makes it worth any good, professional exposure of which you might avail yourself. The current one at the Roundabout being perhaps the handiest.

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