`The Common Pursuit': life among intellectuals

The Common Pursuit Play by Simon Gray. Directed by Mr. Gray and Michael McGuire. ``The Common Pursuit,'' Simon Gray's stimulating new play at the Promenade Theatre, ends by returning to its hopeful opening scene. In this ironic flashback coda, Stuart Thorne (Kristoffer Tabori) defines the ideals of his planned literary publication for the fellow Cambridge University students who have gathered to hear about it.

``What we need to talk aboout now,'' Thorne tells them, ``isn't simply what we want for our first few issues but our whole future. . . . That's the only way we will survive. By knowing what it is we are about to give the world, precisely.''

Survival comes hard, both for Thorne and his monthly periodical, The Common Pursuit.

What happens to him and to his Cambridge contemporaries in the decades between the 1960s and 1980s provides the substance of Mr. Gray's shrewdly observed account of life among the intellectuals.

The magazine lasts for nearly nine years, thanks to Thorne's dogged persistence and arts council grants.

To sustain his morale, the young editor relies on Marigold Watson (Judy Geeson), the Cambridge girlfriend he subsequently marries, and more particularly on Martin Musgrove (Michael Countryman), the magazine's diffident business manager, who becomes a thriving trade publisher. By the time Thorne is about to receive his latest lifeline grant, he has decided to discontinue The Common Pursuit and embark on a writing career, which soon results in a popular biography of a minor poet.

``The Common Pursuit'' is at the same time a complexly fascinating group portrait and a rueful, philosophic study of what happens when youthful idealism gets lost or forsaken or merely overtaken by events.

Thorne, the central figure in the equation, suffers a double defeat. Having given up The Common Pursuit, in part for Marigold's sake, he discovers that he has lost her to the self-effacing Musgrove. The quiet depth of feeling with which Mr. Tabori registers Thorne's heartbreak is one of the fine moments of an exemplary performance.

The acting throughout honors the literateness, humanity, and grace of the writing.

Mr. Countryman's Musgrove personifies a loyalty that is nevertheless capable of betrayal.

Though secondary in the prevailingly male scheme of things, Ms. Geeson proves a consistently attractive presence.

Other members of the fine ensemble, directed by Gray and Michael McGuire, include Peter Friedman as the austere but outspoken Scot whose closet homosexuality ends in tragedy, Nathan Lane as a literary careerist who becomes a BBC personality, and Dylan Baker as a philandering, self-described hustler.

The production has been cleverly designed by David Jenkins, with costumes by David Murin and lighting by Frances Aronson.

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