Photo Joan Marcus
The Common Pursuit
Laura Pels Theatre
Simon Gray is best known in the US for having written the play Butley, which provided a starring vehicle and tour-de-force for Alan Bates, who also starred in Gray’s Otherwise Engaged. The specter of Bates rather haunts The Common Pursuit, a play by Gray first performed in 1984, in the lead character of Stuart Thorne, a literary man who finds his life and career mired in compromise. It’s a part that Bates himself did not play, but it’s clearly a Bates-type role, and in this revival of the play by the Roundabout Theatre Company (through July 29), wanly directed by Moisés Kaufman, the young Josh Cooke plays Thorne with a Bates-like beard and his vocal flourishes are consistently suggestive of Bates, particularly in the second act. It’s a curiously second-hand production all around, an English play with an English setting acted by American actors with English accents that aren’t quite ready yet. The need for these English accents seems to abash most of the players, with the exception of Lucas Near-Verbrugghe, the lively cut-up from Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, who plays the always-smoking writer Nick Finchling as a mild comic whirlwind of self-absorption.
The Common Pursuit moves forward chronologically from the inception of Thorne’s literary magazine at Cambridge, through to its financial floundering but artistic success, then its financial success and artistic decay, with a triangle between Thorne, his wife Marigold (Kristen Bush) and his friend Martin (Jacob Fishel) seen as a kind of collateral damage of this process. This triangular relationship comes to a dramatic climax toward the end of the play, but it never feels inevitable, or even particularly sad, even though all three actors give it their all; there’s something missing in Gray’s writing when it comes to the character of Martin, some shades of either sweetness or villainy that might make him more than a comic bumbler and inadvertent usurper of everything Thorne holds dear.
After we have witnessed the decline of every one of the lives Gray has set up, The Common Pursuit ends with a brightly lit scene back at Cambridge, where we see the characters as hopeful students again. This is effectively played, and arranged by set designer Derek McLane for maximum impact, but it feels slightly cheap, an easy way out, an easy way to move us. I can imagine this play being modestly touching with a crackerjack cast of British theater pros. As presented here, it’s a pale little thing, like a baby bird that can barely move being pushed out of its nest, and the only one who really flies at all is Near-Verbrugghe, who does all kinds of vaguely pleasurable physical business with his role, owlishly peering out over his glasses and skulking around the stage and keeping a game poker face on regardless of the circumstances. It’s such a lovely, subtle comic performance that when his character talks about leaving, you want to cry out, “No! Stay, don’t go yet!” But go he eventually does, and we’re left with a minor play that didn’t particularly need to be revived with this company.