"What'll he be like when he's 40?" a bright young man wonders aloud in Simon Gray's "The Common Pursuit" at the Matrix Theatre. He is talking about a friend who makes a habit of scamping his work and cheating on his wife, but he is wondering the same thing about himself. What will he be like at 40? "Probably exactly the same, only less so, having less energy to be it with."
Just so. Like Pinter's "Betrayal"--also presented by Actors for Themselves at the Matrix: the theme must have some appeal to producer Joseph Stern--this is a rueful study of what the simple passing of time does to people and to their good opinion of themselves.
At the beginning of the play and in a reprise at the very end, Gray's characters are 20-year-olds at Cambridge, with the world before them. All that they need to do is set an agenda, in this case involving the establishment of a literary magazine, called The Common Pursuit.
The gist of the play is what happens to these friends over the next 15 or 20 years, and in most cases it's something ironic. For example, the magazine desperately needs an Arts Council grant to keep afloat. The grant comes, but under conditions that its editor (Kristoffer Tabori) is too honorable to accept. Or too much enamored of failure to accept.
The womanizer of the bunch (Christopher Neame) ends up with two sets of children and a second-rate university post--again, something that he seems to have programmed himself for from the beginning. The self-sacrificing tagalong (Wayne Alexander) gets his partner's wife (Judy Geeson) pregnant, and the duplicity was always there. The group's philosopher and figure of conscience (John de Lancie) hangs around one railway station lavatory too many and is murdered.
Gray doesn't see his characters cynically, with the exception of the odious nerd who wants to be a drama critic and ends up on television (Nathan Lane). Rather, he views them with a disinterested kind of compassion. They had minds, and they meant well, but life outguessed them. It is a wilier opponent than it seems when you're 20.
"The Common Pursuit" is also a witty play, as befits its university-publishing world background. Humphry, the philosopher, has the most formidable tongue, as when he informs the humble Martin, quite without malice, that "merely because you can't speak properly doesn't mean I can't understand you." But even Martin gets off a good one now and again. Everybody in this play speaks properly, and American audiences are starved for that.
It is not, however, a play that breaks new ground. Ever since the 1960s, we've had many movies and plays about characters asking themselves where it all went--youth, trust, a sense that the world could be changed if you had your priorities straight. This is one of the less simplistic examinations of the theme, carefully isolating it from political nostalgia for the 1960s. (Its characters seem to have no politics at all.) But we can't say we haven't been down this road before. What would be novel, just now, would be a play that looked back on age 40 from age 60.
Gray's play has been presented both in London and at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Conn. The Matrix production, a highly capable one, staged by Sam Weisman, uses a very different script from the published version. (Gray has been in town working on it.) It's not necessarily an improvement.
It's become a clearer play, but it's also fallen into the dangers of spelling things out. Where a character would once imply what he wanted, he now puts it directly on the table. Very little hangs unspoken now. "Yes, well, there's a slight irony here . . . . there isn't a baby any more" becomes "I've had an abortion."
The characters announce themselves more straightforwardly than one suspects that these articulate, but very self-protective, intellectuals would have a taste for. If Gray does any further work on the script, it should be to stir some of the mystery and the reserve back in, to avoid overtones of soap opera.
There is something in the air when Humphry tells Martin that he understands why he's so willing to play the mascot role, and the blushing silence with which actor Alexander meets this perception is the finest moment in the show.
Emotionally, Weisman's actors show a thorough understanding of their characters' decline, and each subtly conveys a sense of the physical passage of the years as the play goes on. (The years work differently in different cases: Tabori as Stuart the editor grows meeker and thicker, while Neame as Peter the cheat seems to acquire a crueler profile, like an emperor on a Roman coin).
De Lancie's English accent comes and goes, however, and there's a general sense (though some of the cast is, in fact, English-born) that the actors aren't quite at one with the background--that they're having to do more imagining than a native company would. Again that makes the play a little more on the nose than it should ideally be, without half-tones.
Cliff Faulkner's set is characteristically attractive, workable and revealing of its milieu, and Barbara Cox's costumes are at least partly responsible for suggesting the downward march of time. We have heard the general discussion before, but "The Common Pursuit" illustrates it with particularity and wit.
'THE COMMON PURSUIT' Simon Gray's play, presented by Actors for Themselves at the Matrix Theatre. Director Sam Weisman. Set Cliff Faulkner. Lighting Peter Maradudin. Costumes Barbara Cox. Original music J.A.C. Redford. Production stage manager Sindy Slater. Assistant set designer Christa Bartels. Casting Anthony Barnao. Sound Steve Barker. Production coordinator Chip Johnson. With Wayne Alexander, John de Lancie, Judy Geeson, Nathan Lane, Christopher Neame, Kristoffer Tabori. Plays at 8 p.m. Wednesdays, Sundays. Closes April 13. Tickets $14. 7657 Melrose Ave. (213) 852-1445.