Time Takes a Cigarette, Puts It In Your Mouth

Simon Gray’s The Common Pursuit follows the lives and times of five literary men in England.  Each scene jumps ahead about five or six years, beginning in the group’s undergraduate years in Cambridge and concluding about twenty years later.  The scenes are snapshots and in only a few hours, we are given the same sense of breadth we would get from a nineteenth century novel.  And like Pinter’s Betrayal, The Common Pursuit achieves an incredible amount of depth by examining only a few moments in a lifetime.  The play is a great work by a first-rate writer, so it is unfortunate that the current revival by Roundabout yields such mixed results.

In the first act, most of the performers don’t seem to have a firm grip on their characters.  The Common Pursuit opens with Stuart (Josh Cooke) engaging in one of those very theatrical flirtations with his girlfriend Marigold (Kristen Bush).  He picks up a letter she has written to him and says coyly, “I rather think from the way that it goes into all sorts of details about my private person, that it must be a letter from you.  Ah yes.  It’s from you … And here’s your name.  Marigold Watson.  That is your name, isn’t it?”  Later, when they kiss, she sighs, “Oh Stuart, Stuart, Stuart.  If you are Stuart Thorne, that is.”  It’s an amiable exchange, but in the mouths of Mr. Cooke and Ms. Bush, it all sounds so written—it’s a disservice to Mr. Gray, really, for it gives us the impression that he is desperately self-satisfied with his own wit.  Later, Nick (Lucas Near-Verbrugghe) will enter, chain-smoking and producing perhaps the fakest cough I have ever heard in a theater; Nick is something of a phony, someone who has adopted a flamboyant personality to appear more interesting than he really is.  Nathan Lane played the part back in 1986—excellent casting, I imagine—and Mr. Near-Verbrugghe spends most of the evening doing a bad impersonation of the superior performer.  These three say their lines out of obligation instead of passion, because they were written down and not because they must be said.  Tim McGeever, who plays the exacting philosopher Humphry, and Kieran Campion, who plays the womanizing Peter (nicknamed “Captain Marvel”), fare slightly better, but they still seem more like types instead of people.  The one exception is Martin (Jacob Fishel), an endearingly awkward character who is played with an engaging nervous energy.  Uncynically trying to ingratiate himself with everyone he meets, he’s the kind of guy who would apologize after bumping into an unoccupied armchair.

There is also the problem of age.  Since Mr. Gray’s characters move from their early twenties to their early forties in the course of The Common Pursuit, a decision has to be made about the cast—do you make younger actors appear older, or older actors appear younger?  Director Moisés Kaufman has chosen the latter route with some confusing results.  The slightly balding, white-haired Mr. McGeever, for example, is in no conceivable universe twenty years old, and Mr. Cooke’s full beard is worn like one that has been there for at least a decade.  It’s kind of like watching Henry Winkler trying to pull off a teenager on Happy Days after having already reached his thirties.  Still, by the second half, most of the actors have settled into their parts, both physically and emotionally.  They seem more comfortable and their performances become more natural.  We watch as the spaces remain the same while the characters helplessly age and the devastation of the passage of time quietly creeps into all of their interactions.  Mr. Cooke has a particularly affecting moment when he realizes all the pieces of his life have fallen into place and they aren’t quite what he had anticipated.

Mr. Gray has a masterful hold on the balance between comedy and tragedy.  He handles the two with expert finesse, and his plays bear a striking resemblance to—God forbid—real life.  I love The Common Pursuit, and I do think I love it even more after this production.  But it deserves a better rendering.

The Common Pursuit runs through July 29th at the Laura Pels Theatre.  111 W. 46th Street  New York, NY.

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