Put a bunch of Cambridge grads together, follow them through the years, give them some ups and downs, and end with a death, shake and stir. The Common Pursuit, by Simon Gray delivers a familiar story akin to your Big Chill-St. Elmo's Fire-Return of the Secaucus Seven-Peter's Friends-type movie. Sadly, this production of The Common Pursuit,* directed by Moises Kaufman, does not come together to deliver a strong ensemble or the emotional punch needed.
We are introduced to a gaggle of Cambridge undergraduates. First, we meet Stuart (Josh Cooke) who is planning to launch a new literary magazine and has assembled a coterie of writers, contributors and friends to produce a high-minded serious publication called The Common Pursuit. He is also ravishing his girlfriend Marigold (Kristen Bush), when bumbling Martin (Jacob Fishel), walks in on them. Martin hopes to work behind the scenes on the magazine and learn about publishing since his contribution of a poem about cats showed only his knowledge of cats not poetry. Uptight writer and poet Humphrey (Tim McGeever) joins the fray, along with chain smoker, bon vivant Nick (Lucas Near-VerBrugghe), and skirt chaser Peter (Kieran Campion). As these characters grow up, Stuart pursues his high-brow vision of a magazine, Martin finances it, Nick takes his writing and career in a flashier direction, Humphrey becomes a Cambridge professor with a desire to write a meaningful book on Wagner, and Peter, always ending up on top despite putting in the least amount of effort, becomes a professor at Oxford.
Although the play covers a 20-year span, the classic English look to the rooms, furniture and set give it a timeless quality. The piles of books, spires of Cambridge, and warped old window panes of older buildings all give a comforting, academic and literary feel to the space and play. However, the costuming seemed utterly without an era, so the passage of time is not really felt as much as it is talked about.
The American cast does a middling job with their English accents. There was something off about their verbal rhythm and physical movement that left me puzzled for most of the first Act. The cast seemed to not find the beats to the underlying material. Funny lines fell flat and emotional moments seemed unbelievable. The material here is not as strong as say a Stoppard play or even more recently Cock (where English accents were better used and married well with rhythm of the material) but the actors failed to imbue this very English story with much authenticity (save Jacob Fishel whose Martin seemed spot on). It took until late in the play for me to start to believe these characters cared for one another or were even really invested in each others lives. It also takes the play a while for the stakes to become real. Act II was much stronger with both writing and performances but even then the actors overall did not get the material to sing.
The stand-out in the production is Jacob Fishel. He legitimately felt English. His awkward ineptitude was charming and well-performed. He succeeded at finding a physical and verbal rhythm that felt authentic. He delivered on both comedy and drama. I'm keeping an eye out for him in other things. Tim McGeever felt too stiff even for his uptight character. His character had some fantastically funny, biting lines but the delivery was off (although I will admit I was the one in the mezzanine to laugh-snort loudly during one of his lines--so loud I missed the very serious shift in the scene a moment later). He needed to be a young Victor Garber with pointedly acid line delivery. But his lines just got stepped on and the zingers often did not land. He has a very emotional moment late in the play and the writing offers a sincerely powerful moment but his delivery felt wooden. Lucas Near-Verbrugghe had the "biggest," loudest character but he seemed over the top. Every gesture and expression was just too much and did not mesh with the material or the rest of the ensemble. I wished he could have dialed it down a bit as it could have been funnier if more muted. Josh Cooke came across as very one note and he had no chemistry with Kristen Bush (in a small thankless role). Kieran Campion did a fine job as Peter but he is costumed and groomed in such a way that undermined his character's lothario reputation.
This is one of those plays that improves in the second Act but this production makes it a challenge to get there.
* I received a complementary ticket to this production.