At what point does the zeal of youthful idealism wear off? In Simon Gray's play The Common Pursuit, now in a rather prosaic revival by the Roundabout Theatre Company, it erodes slowly over time until dreams become a distant mirage and betrayals, professional and personal, turn the erosion into a landslide.
For the sextet of Cambridge students - five young men and the girlfriend of one - who set out to start a new literary magazine in the 1960's, the years take an exceptionally heavy toll. Compromise and infidelity, both to scholarly standards and to one another, alter the landscape and lower expectations. Each in his way becomes the thing he once most despised.
The magazine, to be named Common Pursuit, is the brainchild of Stuart Thorne. It will be dedicated solely to literary excellence, focused on poetry, and Stuart has recruited four other students to join him in the enterprise. To the suggestion that his criteria might be elitist, he responds "well, someone has to be elitist."
The group he brings together is a cross-section of collegiate types. There is Humphry Taylor, a poet-philosopher who is the brightest of the lot and, at the outset, a closet gay; Nick Finchling, a chain-smoking, incipient alcoholic whose flamboyance is matched only by his egotism; Peter Whetworth, a sexoholic history major nicknamed Captain Marvel for his prowess between the sheets; Martin Musgrove, a moneyed and enthusiastic outsider whose essay on cats is rejected for the first issue; and Marigold Watson, Stuart's devoted girlfriend and a sort of cheerleader for the project.
Lest anyone doubt Stuart's passion for poetry, we see him in the opening scene leap from Marigold's embrace - coitus quite literally interruptus - to recruit Cambridge's leading poet into contributing some verse to the fledgling magazine. Back in his rooms, the others argue over whether they are listening to Vivaldi or Bach and indulge in the old undergraduate pastime of denigrating the literary merits of their peers.
Fast forward nine years and disillusion has already set in. The past two numbers of the magazine have failed to appear, the printers haven't been paid, and eviction notices on its office have been issued. On top of it all, Marigold is pregnant. Only the London Arts Council can save Common Pursuit from going under and Stuart learns he may not be the final arbiter on literary merit after all. One man's poetry may be another's doggerel and vice versa.
If there is any fizz left in this bubbly and ultimately sad play, it has gone flat in the current revival. The exuberance of the opening scene is forced and any humor is mostly lost in the rushed delivery of some of the lines. The acerbity of the zingers with which the individual characters skewer their literary rivals - vitriol being a Gray trademark - is oddly diluted. And while there is a sense of sorrow over the treachery inflicted among these onetime friends, it is more gloomy than poignant.
Gray, who died in 2008, made a career of writing plays set in academia, and was himself a university lecturer. Among his more frequently revived plays are Butley (1971) and Quartermaine's Terms (1981). The Common Pursuit was first produced in 1984, directed by Harold Pinter, and revised by Gray a few years later.
The Roundabout revival, directed by Moises Kaufman, never quite finds either the passion with which the magazine is launched or the depth of disappointment at the duplicity that follows. Some of the roles are miscast. Kristen Bush is consistently convincing as Marigold. Josh Cooke and Jacob Fishel have their moments as Stuart and Martin, respectively, and Tim McGeever is stoic as Humphry.