NEW YORK (AP) -- The loss of youthful idealism is often a slow burn, a gradual series of little defeats. Acerbic British writer Simon Gray, who died in 2008, was very good at cataloguing the ways those compromises slipped in, especially in his ironic 1984 play "The Common Pursuit."
Moises Kaufman smartly directs the thoughtful revival by the Roundabout Theatre Company, that opened Thursday night off-Broadway at The Laura Pels Theatre.
A group of enthusiastic, poetry-loving, Cambridge college students gather to create a literary magazine in the early 1960's. Gray's satirical, bittersweet presentation of subtle developments over the next 20 years of their lives demands a well-matched cast, and this particular ensemble is very good, as the students' optimism matures into disappointment, mediocrity and personal betrayals.
It's a timeless premise, and this production remains true to the original by keeping many period details. The era is pre-computer and pre-cellphone; the only communication devices in evidence are large, rotary-dial phones. Homosexuality is shameful and can't be honestly discussed, even in private among friends.
Magazine founder and editor Stuart (a dynamic portrayal by Josh Cooke), the leader of the group, determines to keep publishing after graduation, although his impossibly high standards cause business difficulties that gradually force him further from his youthful ideals.
Stuart's loyal girlfriend, Marigold, is played by Kristen Bush with smart, wholesome, girl-next-door sweetness. Caustic philosopher-poet Humphry is given just the right mix of pomposity, sensitivity and self-loathing by Tim McGeever. Lucas Near-Verbrugghe is sly and likable, if somewhat buffoonish, as rumpled, chain-smoking Nick, a constantly coughing, smoke-wreathed cynic.
Jacob Fishel seems sweetly sincere as independently wealthy Martin, whose prose poem about cats is summarily rejected by Stuart. Unfazed, Martin offers to run the business side of the magazine. Bumbling and insecure at first, Fishel ably conveys the subtle changes wrought by time in Martin's confidence, as he financially supports his friend and the magazine for many years. A shocking twist involving Martin, occurring late in the play, seems better suited to "Captain Marvel," the always-womanizing and deceitful Peter, who's given the harried air of a perpetual liar by Kieran Campion.
Some eight years after college, still editing the magazine, Stuart reflects to Martin, "There's always something I've let by that I didn't quite believe in." Much more pragmatically, Martin now also publishes books "for people who can't read." Each in their circle of friends gradually alters their life plans as reality throws different curveballs their way.
One of the more ironic running jokes involves the ways Nick's career plans are always dogged, and at times competitively thwarted, by a prep school classmate whom he despised and casually bullied. Near-Verbrugghe delivers one of Gray's sly digs at envy, "One needs someone one hates meshed into the texture of one's life."
Derek McLane's beautiful, bookshelf-lined set provides a stylish background as, with poignant accuracy, these characters delineate how even the best-nurtured ideals and ambitions can devolve into self-deception and quiet desperation, until all that's left is a stiff, occasionally quivering upper lip.