In the mid-1980s, “The Common Pursuit” had a healthy run Off Broadway and won the Lucille Lortel Award and Outer Critics Circle Award for best play.
The soapy drama, which centers on a group of starry-eyed students at Cambridge University who launch a literary magazine and struggle to keep it afloat over two decades, highlights how best laid plans, in both business and pleasure, have a way of turning out in extraordinary ways, sometimes for better but usually for worse. Time has a way of cheating dreams.
As the current Roundabout revival makes clear, time has not been kind to this play. Even director Moisés Kaufman, who worked miracles with “I Am My Own Wife,” “33 Variations,” and “The Laramie Project,” can’t quite rescue it.
First of all, the plot — publishing a literary magazine (also titled the Common Pursuit) — may be too esoteric for today’s audiences, even subscription-paying New Yorkers. It’s hard to muster much empathy for snooty geeks trying to uphold unrealistic standards of a precious enterprise. The whole idea seems rather quaint, now that the Internet has blown the old publishing model to smithereens.
The chief dilemma — Do we compromise our ideals to ramp up business? — has been done to death on stage and elsewhere. Scoring “major new poems” by a “major poet” is meant to be riveting stuff, but I didn’t care.
The guy on my left kept nodding off. On my right, my theater companion, who works in literary publishing, leaned over during intermission and whispered, “I have one word for your review: rarified.”
“The Common Pursuit” crew is a hodgepodge of affable eccentrics, portrayed with flair by a solid ensemble. The ringleader is Stuart (a bearded Josh Cooke, in an impressive New York stage debut), the idealistic editor who often puts the needs of the magazine before those of his exceedingly alluring girlfriend — later his wife — Marigold (Kristen Bush). The business manager, Martin (Jacob Fishel), is a hardworking, solitary type devoted to his dog. Peter (Kieran Campion) is a married, shameless philanderer who uses Martin as an alibi to cover up his trysts.
Then there’s Humphry (Tim McGeever), a haughty poet with a taste for finding love in public toilets. The most flamboyant of the bunch is Nick (Lucas Near-Verbrugghe, who strains to make the role believable), a chain-smoker with an annoying hacking cough who manages to hijack every conversation with his ramblings.
The play tries to draw power from the tension between highbrow ambitions and baser urges. Perhaps years ago it was compelling that bookish types consume copious amounts of liquor and are capable of animalistic sexcapades, but not so much now (one exception was the recently closed “Seminar,” aided by Alan Rickman’s electrifying turn).
Not to mention that the play, set at Cambridge, feels about as authentically English as packaged English muffins. The accents are all over the map.
That said, there are intermittent pleasures to be found. Playwright Simon Gray’s dialogue is often amusing. “Sometimes I think I’m missing out on addiction,” the goody-two-shoes Martin says of his colleagues’ drinking and smoking and carousing.
Of a rival writer, Nick deadpans, “One needs someone one hates meshed into the texture of one’s life.”
A couple of pulpy plot twists were surprisingly affecting. The revelation of one particular affair was something I certainly didn’t see coming.
Derek McLane’s evolving set of the magazine’s office, which suggests the passage of time while maintaining a constant wall of books, is cleverly designed.
“The Common Pursuit” is a play about an elitist, intellectually rigorous magazine that, try as it might to be otherwise, itself comes off as elitist. The magazine, even before the first issue is published, is described as “embattled” and “beleaguered” — a perfectly fair description of this lackluster endeavor.
THE COMMON PURSUIT | Laura Pels Theatre | Roundabout Theater Company | 111 W. 46th St. | Through Jul. 29; Tue.-Sat. at 7:30 p.m.; Wed., Sat.-Sun. at 2 p.m. | $71-81 | roundabouttheatre.org or 212-719-1300