Audiences Riled Up Over Simon Gray’s “The Common Pursuit”

Written by Doug Strassler on . Posted in Arts & Film, Theater.


Forget Upright Citizens Brigade or People’s Improv —the current hot spot for audience interaction seems to be the Roundabout Company’s Laura Pels . First, I had the great fortune to hear audience members around me constantly chatter throughout Stephen Karam’s great Sons of the Prophet. And just recently, audience members incongruously, embarrassingly began talking back to the characters onstage in the current revival of Simon Gray’s The Common Pursuit. It seems subscribers are taking the “pay for play” philosophy to an all-new low.
Furthermore, I’m not sure exactly what has these rowdy audience members so riled up. The reversals and occasional reveals of Pursuit must have felt dusty when Gray’s play first hit the boards in 1984. Directed now by Moisés Kaufman in a straightforward style that straddles pointed humor and melodramatic observation, Pursuit’s schematic structure finds six college friends whose, well, roundabout paths lead them to points not far from where they started and to destinations we can seeing coming from far away.
These friends—mostly peers whose life passions and career pursuits entwine their lives together in ways that are more invasively unhealthy than friendships ought to be—first meet in the Cambridge dorm room of Stuart Thorne (Josh Cooke, a television actor making a solid New York stage debut) to create a literary magazine, from which the play gets its title.
Aside from Stuart’s girlfriend, Marigold Watson (Kristen Bush), the all-male cast of characters includes the serious Martin Musgrove (Jacob Fishel), the womanizing Peter Whetworth (Kieran Campion), the sardonic Nick Finchling (Lucas Near-Verbrugghe), and the sensitive, self-lacerating poet Humphry Taylor (Tim McGeever).
Gray doesn’t allow much in the way of subtlety for his fine actors, though all do a good job. Bush’s physical work—worried and stressed facial gestures, posture that tells us when she’s ready to give up a battle—adds much character backstory that Pursuit otherwise ignores for her.
Campion easily locates Peter’s pompous soul, while McGeever does an equally adroit job of communicating Humphry’s desiccating heart and Near-Verbrugghe finds a whole meal to chew in on the form of Nick’s flamboyance. Fishel, however, offers a quiet instructional listen on just how to dig beneath a flawed play and create a complete, complex character.
Pursuit charts their paths from this first meeting in 1968 through the early 1980s and the developments their lives take, often as a direct result of the action of another man in the group (what caused the inappropriate audience reactions throughout the show, particularly its second act). But in navigating this maze, Gray—who has created sharper works in Butley and Otherwise Engaged—only looks inside. Pursuit offers no commentary on the changing times the way the similarly structured The Heidi Chronicles or Same Time Next Year did.
As boys become men, they hurt—and hurt each other. This is not a novel dramatic concept, and Kaufman does little to work around the play’s talky, expository style. Most of the dramatic events that occur happen offstage and between scenes; they are spoken of but never seen, which not only cuts down on tension but makes it more difficult to telegraph plot points that are to occur later on. This is a shame, because one gets the sense that Gray’s idea for Pursuit comes from a personal place. Has he experienced the kind of hurt or even triumph at the expense of others that befall any of his characters? His premise tells me yes, while Pursuit itself—despite those cries from the crowd around me—elicits little more than a shrug.

The Common Pursuit
Through July 29. Laura Pels Theatre, 111 W. 46th St., www.roundabouttheatre.org.

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