What a treat to start the new season off with the Roundabout Theater Company’s smartly directed and terrifically performed revival of Simon Gray’s homage to high-toned literary publications and to the bristling academic oeuvre behind it. In it we are drawn into the juicily dramatized entanglements of its richly drawn characters –– six Cambridge University students –– as they dream and plan to consolidate their talent to publish a literary journal. That we are also able to become fully engaged, committed, and amused by this witty and aggressively optimistic group as they progress through their travails is not a small reward.
Here is an organically consolidated a bunch of litterateurs as has ever been bonded together in one play. These chaps and one woman, Stuart Thorne (Josh Cooke), Marigold Watson (Kristen Bush), Martin Musgrove (Jacob Fishel), Humphry Taylor (Tim McGeever), Nick Finchling (Lucas Near-Verbrugghe), Peter Whetworth (Kieran Campion), soon enough find out that collaborating on the publication of a literary journal is apt to take its toll on long-standing friendships and more intimate personal relationships.
The play chronicles 20 years during which time we watch with the relish of privileged voyeurs how the emotional detours, the academic pitfalls, and the whims of providence alter the professional and private lives of these somewhat arrogant, but also engagingly emboldened intellectuals. Cheers for director Moises Kaufman (“Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,” “33 Variations,” and “I Am My Own Wife”) who has unequivocally embraced the play’s inherent Anglomania, an effort that pays off handsomely given the supportive elan and esprit of the company.
Cooke is an immediately recognizable specimen of becalmed stress, the organizer of the proposed journal, to be called “The Common Pursuit.” He hopes to be as fulfilled at work as he is in his love for resilient Marigold, as played by a casually sensual Kristen Bush. Eventually becoming Stuart’s wife, Marigold is also an unwitting catalyst for some major upheavals.
As Martin the money-bags sponsor of the project, Jacob Fishel projects a fresh-faced innocence that expresses the character’s utter lack of sophistication, all the while changing effortlessly from a Casper Milquetoast to a big cheese. Campion is very fine as Peter, the good-looking, self-assured historian whose negotiating skills in the business sector are as slickly deployed as is his compulsive womanizing in the private arena. McGeever is excellent as Humphry, the dour, pompous, condescending philosopher/poet, and most detrimentally a promiscuous homosexual. Near-Verbrugghe has the most show-offy role as Nick, the caustically boorish, deviously self-serving critic. Near-Verbrugghe makes the most of his and his character’s opportunities to command attention, consigned as he is to prolonged coughing fits, chain-smoking, and generally being conspicuously unnerving and unsettling to the others.
The fluctuating allegiances, surprising betrayals, and the ultimately happy/sad resolutions are all served well by a playwright who makes no apology for what is apparently an incomparable affection for his characters. There is not a dull moment in this play, which relies as heavily on the brashness of its characters as on the brightness of its discourse. It is also well marked with spicy, riveting contrivances that generally act as palate fresheners in an already sumptuous feast. Bitter-sweetly book-ended by scenes in Stuart’s cluttered room at Cambridge, designer Derek McLane’s unpretentiously evocative settings mainly include the publishing offices in Holborn.
“The Common Pursuit” unquestionably stands right alongside Gray’s other acclaimed forays into his favored world of academia, including “Quartermaine’s Terms” and “Butley,” the latter receiving a splendid revival on Broadway in 2006 starring Nathan Lane who (incidentally) played Peter in the 1986 Off-Broadway production of “The Common Pursuit.” This sparking production will undoubtedly please fans of the late Gray. It will also allow those yet unacquainted see just how uncommon is “The Common Pursuit.”
“The Common Pursuit,” Roundabout at Laura Pels Theater, 111 West 46th Street. Through July 29. For tickets ($71- $81) call 212-719-1300.