In his diaries, Simon Gray revealed the recipe of passion, self-loathing and champagne (later Diet Coke) he needed for comic masterpieces such as Quartermaine’s Terms and Butley. Those same ingredients went into his 1984 college-and-its-aftermath drama The Common Pursuit, though its mechanical structure and air of injured entitlement push it firmly into Gray’s second tier. Still, the British writer’s Rabelaisian appetite does underlie its woe-is-elitism complaints, and Pursuit could someday make a company a small feast. Unfortunately the Roundabout’s by-the-numbers production pushes it all away untasted.
Pursuit follows six college chums from the first idealistic days of their literary magazine at Cambridge into the group’s disappointing adulthood. The play’s (and journal’s) title comes from T.S. Eliot’s description of criticism—“The common pursuit of true judgment”—and Gray posits editor Stuart (Josh Cooke) as a Knight of High Standards eternally besieged by the Forces of Compromise. Marriage to the thinly characterized Marigold (Kristen Bush) saps his fighting spirit; his friends persist in finding paying work that they then excoriate themselves over. Only Nick (Lucas Near-Verbrugghe), cheerily smoking himself to death, finds joy in hypocrisy.
Director Moisés Kaufman stumbles badly. He gets nothing from unskilled actors (the wooden Cooke), then gets bad things from the good (a braying Near-Verbrugghe). The performers sound like they are taking turns; there’s no true argument or even conversation onstage. It’s no sin to revive a minor work, but it’s perverse to find one that so clearly states its position on middlebrow pandering. It makes things all the more piquant when your production is bloodlessly mediocre. That’s not the sort of irony you commonly pursue.—Helen Shaw