There’s nothing funnier than collegiate humor in the hands of a clever satirist like Simon Gray. So credit helmer Moises Kaufman and ensemble for their stylish delivery of the comic bits in the Brit scribe’s 1984 play “The Common Pursuit,” about a group of university friends with high-minded ambitions who thoughtlessly allow their ideals to become compromised after they graduate into the real world. But Gray’s sardonic humor has a darker side that is glossed over in this Roundabout production, and aside from the joy of getting laughs, there seems to be no rationale at all for this revival.
Gray is the kind of craftsman who worships good form. So there’s a distinctly formulaic pattern to the play and its characters.
The six friends who meet as Cambridge undergraduates in the play’s first scene will return full circle to their younger selves in the last scene. But in the intervening dozen years — a gradual passage artfully conveyed by Derek McLane’s shape-shifting academic settings and Clint Ramos’ time-sensitive costumes — they will slowly but surely lose touch with their literary dreams and professional ambitions.
Although each of the characters has a distinct voice and a fully individual set of mannerisms, they do run to type.
Stuart (Josh Cooke) is the solid center of the group, a highly principled intellectual purist who comes up with the idea of establishing a literary magazine called The Common Pursuit.
Marigold (Kristen Bush), Stuart’s g.f. and later his wife, takes her place beside him in the moral center.
Martin (Jacob Fishel) is the rich, but intellectually slow lad who is happy just to be in the company of these bright minds.
Humphry (Tim McGeever), the smartest kid in the room, has the refined sensibility and crippling critical values of a perfectionist.
Nick (Lucas Near-Verbrugghe) is the bad boy who smokes, drinks and dashes off brilliant, but superficial bon mots to wow the crowd.
Peter (Kieran Campion) is the feckless charmer, happy to sell out so he can pursue his hedonistic pleasures.
Gray’s tightly woven plot allows the friends to slip off the leash and pursue whatever glittering prize happens to present itself. Some fly higher than others — Humphry joins the Cambridge faculty, Nick becomes a BBC critic, Peter writes best-sellers — but sooner or later they all crash back to earth.
Despite the hair-raising ups and downs of his literary magazine, Stuart maintains his position as the moral compass of the group, because he’s the only one who remains steadfast to his ideals. Unfortunately, Cooke makes such a sourpuss of the character that his position as the righteous keeper of the ethical code is seriously compromised.
But aside from Bush, who maintains the integrity of Marigold’s character throughout the play, and McGeever, who seems to appreciate the bitter irony of Humphry’s unforgiving perfectionism, no one else in the cast seems compelled to dig beneath the surface of his character. Which is fine — if you just came for the laughs.