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A stinging British drama of excellence ungained

In the middle of ``The Common Pursuit,'' now in its American premi`ere at the Long Wharf Theatre here, a character asks about a wine, ``It's both bland and acid. Is it English?'' What it is, is an apt description for this latest Simon Gray play, a stinging work that never raises its voice. This lethal subtlety is typical of Gray, a British novelist and playwright who etched his reputation with such biting comedies as ``Butley,'' ``Otherwise Engaged,'' and ``Quartermaine's Terms'' -- works that specialized in firing satiric salvos at British middle-class intellectuals, particularly those within literary and academic reaches. ``The Common Pursuit,'' which opened last summer at London's Lyric Hammersmith Theatre, continues this barrage.

In the vein of Frederic Raphael's play ``Glittering Prizes,'' Gray traces the lives of five Cambridge University students as they wend their way from youthful idealism during the '60s to middle-age cynicism two decades later. A sort of British ``Big Chill,'' as it were. In place of politically disillusioned Americans, Gray provides a handful of Britain's best and brightest brimming with literary aspirations. Ah, the compromises the five make as they struggle to mate art with life and vice versa. When the going gets tough -- and it does -- characters lash out at each other or quietly implode.

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But when we first encounter the five -- and the lone female love interest, Marigold -- at Trinity College, hopes are glossy and the future, although uncertain, seems bright. Unknown to each other except by reputation, the five have gathered to publish the first edition of a new literary magazine, The Common Pursuit.

Lobbing his characters on stage at well-timed intervals, Gray introduces us to this talented but eccentric crew: Stuart, zealously devoted to both his magazine and Marigold; Martin, the unpretentious, wealthy orphan interested in the publishing business; Humphry, a dour Scottish poet possessing the group's most talent and the most lacerating wit; Nick, a true court jester with aspirations of being The Times's theater critic; and Peter, nicknamed Captain Marvel because of his winning ways with women and college administrators. It's a well-balanced group the author has wrought that, if occasionally veering toward stock characterization, manages to win and keep our interest.

Gray pulls the plug on all of them in the second scene. It is nine years hence and fate has not been kind to The Common Pursuit. The offices are ratty and Stuart, who describes himself as ``a threatened lion or a bankrupt rat,'' has been accused by the Arts Council of being ``elitist.'' Needless to say, Stuart hasn't the money to marry Marigold. Already life has lined up against art. Nick and Peter are busily succumbing to popular taste and easy fame -- Nick's wardrobe improves with every appearence on stage. Martin is happily learning the publishing business. Only Humphry appears to be successfully allegiant to literary and academic excellence. But even this devotion is short lived.

Throughout the remainder of the play, Gray traces his characters' successes and lack thereof as they intertwine personally and professionally. Alliances are formed and broken; Marigold, not surprisingly, changes hands. But glaring through the latticework of plot machinations and twists of character is the theme of excellence ungained.

Unlike the American characters in ``The Big Chill,'' who cry crocodile tears over past political idealism from a vantage point sturdy with personal success, Gray's characters, with one exception, have no such solace. Those who succeed do so at the expense of personal integrity; those who cannot compromise simply do not survive.

Only Martin, who has no aspirations other than pragmatic business concerns, flourishes with no loss of conscience. He even gets the girl in the end.

Despite the redundancy of a final scene that returns us, presumably full of irony, to the play's opening at college, ``The Common Pursuit'' quietly builds its case. Under Kenneth Frankel's able direction (he won an Obie in 1983 for ``Quartermaine's Terms'') the American cast skillfully handles the rigors of the required English dialects and manners. The Trinity College set by David Jenkins is pleasantly oaken and ornate, and the scene-by-scene sprucing up of the London offices is visually interesting.

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However, the production is marred by occasional flaccidity. Mr. Gray tends to posit his heroes at a point of crisis and leave them more acted upon than acting. It creates roles that demand charismatic acting to pull off.

For whatever reason -- William Converse-Roberts as Stuart seemed under the weather opening night -- the lead performance was not always sufficiently arresting. When Peter Friedman as Humphry and Nathan Lane as Nick, the wittiest and most energetic characters, were offstage, a pall rather than pathos tended to settle.

Michael Countryman is a sympathetic Martin and Mark Arnott does justice to Peter, a role that grows richer throughout the evening. Ellen Parker as Marigold, unfortunately, has little to do other than stand about looking stricken and/or long-suffering.

At the Long Wharf through Feb. 24.

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