The Common Pursuit is a prolonged joke leading up to a bitterly ironic punch line about the tricks that life plays on five chums at Cambridge University.

The play is also a mystery, in which the characters drop clues indicating personality flaws that will sabotage their ambitions.

But mostly, The Common Pursuit is an extremely entertaining soap opera that would be utterly vacuous if it weren’t for the high caliber of Simon Gray’s writing.

The characters he has created are smart; they’re perceptive; they’re erudite and articulate–their speech would be implausible if they weren’t young intellectuals trying to start a literary magazine.

For example, when Humphry, the philosopher, abandons a biography of Richard Wagner that he has spent years writing, the analysis he offers of his own shortcomings is profound: “I’ve got the scholarship, and the judgment, but not the imagination. Everything I’ve written about him reduces him to my own sort of size. Which makes him too small to be interesting to me. . . . I diminish what I most admire.”

Even the assessment of a nearby restaurant is delivered with wit: “I shouldn’t eat there if I were you,” says Stuart, the founder of the magazine. “The lavatory’s virtually attached to the oven.”

In a way, that assessment applies to this play as well. Like certain upscale restaurants, The Common Pursuit provides a satisfying experience. The characters are delectable, the plot is spicy, the moral at the end suggests that everything is nutritious to boot. But if you should catch a glimpse behind the scenes, and see how the playwright has concocted this little repast, you begin to have doubts about what you have just consumed.

For The Common Pursuit consists of standard soap opera fare–sex, abortion, suicide, sordid homosexuality, adultery, divorce. Gray has whipped these events into a froth that appears to have substance. It’s certainly appealing at any rate. Just try not to think about what’s in it.

The play isn’t about any single character or event. Rather, the protagonist is a group of men interacting with–and occasionally against–each other. This could result in a hopelessly diffuse plot, but Gray has a gossip’s eye for the delicious shortcomings of his characters, and he knows how to reveal those shortcomings in shocking and suspenseful ways. Consequently, his play “moves right along,” as one woman described it opening night–a comment that might be the most profound assessment one can make of this play.

Actually, the play isn’t about the characters as much as it is about character itself–those habitual responses that account for much of what we attribute to fate. Sure, things just happen to us sometimes, but Gray seems to believe that we all become programmed to respond to events in predictable ways. Eventually, that program begins to determine the events that befall us–sort of like predestination by personality.

To demonstrate this, Gray gives each character a very distinct personality that would border on caricature if the dialogue weren’t so intelligent. And in the production at Steppenwolf, those characters are portrayed by an exceptionally skillful cast under the direction of Rondi Reed.

Humphry, brilliantly rendered by Gerry Becker, is the dour truth teller with the philosopher’s instinct for logic and consistency. Yet his sexual passions resist control by the intellect and get him into trouble.

Nick is a witty loudmouth–a role tailor-made for Alan Wilder. Nick’s banter flits from topic to topic like a horsefly, inflicting a nasty bite wherever it lands. Nick’s archrival “Nappies” (because in college he was rumored to have a bed-wetting problem) “claims his latest triumph is that he’s won the Cheltenham Prize,” Nick sneers. “For that nappy full of homosexless verse he dropped last year.”

Martin is meek and egoless. When his “prose poem” on cats is rejected by the editor, he devotes himself to the business side of the magazine, selflessly nurturing the creative efforts of his friends. Tim Hopper plays this role with insight, giving Martin an earnest, self-effacing manner that belies his intelligence and decency.

Peter is the compulsive womanizer, and Jim True, his baby face surrounded by flowing hair, is ideal in the role. He looks like he would be irresistible to women, but his preoccupation with surface beauty seems to create an inner void in him as the years pass.

And Stuart is the high-minded idealist who sincerely believes the world needs another literary magazine, even one with critical standards so high it is soon branded “elitist” by the arts council that provides funding.

In the New York production, Stuart was portrayed as a typical stiff-upper-lip sort of guy, and that is certainly valid–what else would you expect of a Cambridge student? But Rondi Reed has taken a risk by casting Rick Snyder–an actor full of the intensity that has become the Steppenwolf trademark. Snyder’s accent is merely passable, and his swagger is a bit too American, but he plays Stuart as a man filled with passion. When he’s frustrated, he explodes in anger; when he’s betrayed, he weeps. This may not be authentic–British men are not, as a rule, so voluble–but Snyder puts some fire in Stuart’s gut, and that seems essential for a character who has the ambition to found a magazine and make it succeed.

The play covers 20 years in the lives of these men–and in the life of Marigold, who serves as girlfriend, wife, and mistress. (Sally Murphy does a wonderful job of transforming herself from a callow schoolgirl into a sophisticated, mature woman.)

During those two decades, they change. Their hair becomes thinner. Their clothing, expertly selected by Erin Quigley, reveals their characters. Even the set–a remarkable creation of Kevin Rigdon–reflects the internal changes of these men as they move from cheap wine to Chivas Regal, from ratty posters to elegant art prints.

In short, this is a terrific production of a well-written, shallow play. If you go, I guarantee you’ll be entertained, and leave the theater feeling satisfied.

But you’ll probably be hungry again an hour later.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.