The dreams of youth can be so noble, so passionate and so hard to fulfill. Without a rigorous integrity and the warm watering of inspiration, noble ideals can dry and fade away, leaving very little behind but the stain of regret. English playwright Simon Gray's astonishingly poignant drama The Common Pursuit examines the flaws and shortcomings of a group of Cambridge students who come together to produce a literary journal and go on as friends through mid-life. But though Gray's characters end up selling out and giving in to mediocrity, this is no elitist harangue. Nor can it be dismissed as middle-aged angst, because nothing about it smacks of self-pity. Instead, it's a compassionate moral tale, and CityStage Ensemble, which produces so much fascinating work, nails all the layers of self-deceit, affection and authentic intelligence.
The story begins with young Stuart and his girl, Marigold, planning the first edition of The Common Pursuit. Gathering in Stuart's room are the practical and kindly Martin, the brilliant poet Humphry, the roguish Peter and the funny, caustic drama critic, Nick. Each of these characters holds promise for the future, and each has already shown the weeds of his nature that may very well strangle the potential wheat.
Flash forward eight years, and the characters are still young and fresh enough to cling to their ideals. But the weeds are growing. Peter is married to the "ghastly Erica" and bedding every pretty girl he can get his licentious hands on. Rich, sweet Martin offers Stuart a partnership in publishing, with the promise that he can keep the magazine going on the side. But we are beginning to see that his relationship to Stuart (unbeknownst to Stuart himself) is rather more complicated than it appears to be.
Meanwhile, Nick keeps smoking and writing smart-ass drivel. And Humphry (the gang calls him "Humpty") churns out poetry but refuses to let Stuart print it, abandoning his best work after bouts of self-loathing. Humpty is a tragic figure, because he understands that intelligence is not enough--that art has another dimension inclusive of and greater than even the keenest genius.
Marigold makes a bad decision, too, and the irony of that choice affects all the rest of the play. Flash forward again, and Nick shows signs of smoking-induced disease; Humpty grows more sardonic and grave; Marigold and Stuart are struggling to keep their relationship going; and ugly little secrets are emerging. One final flash forward reveals the settled state of each soul. Gray's ending is a surprise and a gift.
Director Christopher Leo's own intelligent influence permeates the whole show. The cultural differences between America and England are greater than we like to think, so there is a kind of British stiffness--very accurate to the culture--to which the viewer has to adjust. Within this crust of tradition, though, Leo directs the quiet, steady flow of character revelation, orchestrating his talented cast like a fine conductor--just the right bass of sexual desire, just the right full-throated aesthetic passion. The British accents, though, are all a little off-key.
Kevin Stephens gives a strong performance as Stuart, who's easily the most lovable of the lot. When he breaks down in the middle of the second act, it can move you to tears. C. Kelly Douglas is touching as Marigold, whose bad choices lead to so much suffering. Josh Hartwell gives the endearing Martin an edge of depravity, while Stephen Remund, as Peter, carries his character's depravity all the way to pathos. Perhaps the most engrossing performances come from Jeremy Cole as the admirable and tormented Humpty, and John W.B. Green as Nick.
It takes vision to have chosen a play like this one for the Denver audience, which tends to be self-absorbed without being self-reflective. But with The Common Pursuit, Gray and CityStage have given us a scary and exciting excuse to examine our own lives--and to consider how thoughtlessly one can give in to baser proclivities when what is really needed is greater honesty, kindness and perception.
The Common Pursuit, through May 25 at the Theatre at Jack's, 1553 Platte Street, 433-8082.