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Theater: Clinging to the Ideals of Youth the Common Pursuit by Simon Gray

3 minute read
William A. Henry III

Simon Gray, 50, is the laureate of the intellectual as moral vandal. His best plays, from Butley (1971) and Otherwise Engaged (1975) to the witty and poignant The Common Pursuit, which opened off- Broadway last week, depict men of privilege and potential who, out of indifference or gleeful masochism, systematically degrade everything around them, not least their own bright promise. They are apt to view their intelligence either as a burden, leading people to expect things of them, or as an outright curse, lifting their vision just enough to comprehend genius but nowhere near enough to emulate it. Well into their middle years they remain obsessed with the glories of university days, when the ethereal world of ideas opened to them, and regard everything that has come afterward as a sordid compromise.

The Common Pursuit depicts five mismatched undergraduates at Cambridge (the British playwright’s alma mater) who become intimates while putting out a literary magazine. Most of the story is their post-Cambridge life: two remain in academe, two share a publishing house and a paramour (Judy Geeson), and the most buffoonish (Nathan Lane) achieves the biggest success as a celebrity journalist. Theirs is not a “group” of friends but a crisscross of relationships, some close, some almost hostile despite a depth of mutual insight. They judge each other not by material attainments but by how closely each has clung to the ideals of youth.

Nominally the story centers on the founder of the magazine (Kristoffer Tabori), an irritatingly stubborn but gifted scholar whose chief loyalty is to his own tastes and standards. His intensity of principle establishes him as a hero, although not, in Tabori’s rendering, a very likable one. The most interesting performances come from Michael Countryman as a diffident rich boy who spends years under the hero’s sway and Peter Friedman as an austere Scot who spends years resisting it. Countryman portrays the sort of unflashy youth who hangs around his brighter classmates but inevitably is relegated to the business chores — for which he demonstrates an acumen far better suited to adult life than their verbal fireworks. The slow ripening of his self- confidence and, therefore, his sexuality provides the play’s time line, establishing the passage of nearly two decades. Friedman enacts a troubled homosexual whose bent is not the source of his self-destruction: he insists on confronting, and voicing, life’s unpleasant truths, which makes him the most admired and feared member of the circle.

Gray, who co-directed with Michael McGuire, claims he “always thought the play could have been about truck drivers. You would still have the natural leader, the clown, the one who is quietly loyal, the one who knows that the best of himself will never be expressed.” Truck drivers would not talk so gracefully or inhabit a world in which verbal violence is commonplace and bursts of physical violence so shocking. But in its evocation of the judgmental and forgiving ways of friendship — of how a long acquaintance enables people to divine and condone each other’s darkest secrets — The Common Pursuit does indeed portray what is common in all humanity.

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