By Patrick Christiano
Playwrights Horizons’ world premiere production of Amy Herzog’s insightful new play, The Great God Pan, chronicles a man’s coming to terms with a repressed memory 25 years earlier of a potentially sexually abusive week in his childhood when he stayed with friends of the family. In the first scene of the play Jamie (Jeremy Strong), a 32 year old budding journalist from Brooklyn, discovers in an unexpected visit from a long lost childhood acquaintance Frank (Keith Nobbs) that both men may have been abused by Frank’s father in New Jersey, where the two boys grew up.
On the surface Jamie has a perfectly normal life with his girlfriend of six years Paige (Sarah Goldberg), who is pregnant with their child. However we quickly learn there are problems in the relationship, and the two are not certain about having the child. The visit from Frank does not help Jamie remember anything about the long lost week in his life, but instead triggers repressed anger and an extremely defensive response heightening the emotional issues in the couple’s relationship bringing their conflicts to an intense boil.
Frank’s revelation that he was victimized at 5 years old and that he believes Jamie was as well prompts Jamie to question what really happened. He turns to his parents Cathy and Doug (Becky Ann Baker and Peter Friedman) in hopes of uncovering the truth and seeks out a baby-sitter Polly (Joyce Van Patten) that both boys shared, who is now struggling with dementia. The title of the play "The Great God Pan" comes from an Elizabeth Barrett Browning poem about the forest sprite, which Polly would recite to the boys.
Herzog is an acclaimed playwright, who’s most recent offering 400 Miles at Lincoln Center won an Obie Award. She is an immensely gifted story teller who delves deeply into her characters and their reactions to situations, but with The Great God Pan Pan Herzog doesn’t go far enough.
The evening sensitively directed by Carolyn Cantor doesn’t really go anywhere. What we get instead is everyone’s response to the possible sexual abuse as they examine their past and present relationship with Jamie, but there are no clear cut answers. This may indeed be the playwrights intent as victims of abuse often never recover, but carry on damaged with a host of dysfunctional behaviors kept tightly in check. Indeed at the play’s end when Jamie and everyone are pretty much convinced that Jamie was abused we are left wondering if Jamie will integrate the effects of the abuse and move on successfully.
The excellent ensemble also includes Erin Wilhelmi, who plays Joelle an anorexic patient that Paige, a former dancer turned therapist is treating. I wish the engaging tale of people being forced to confront the truth displayed more of the dichotomies inherent in the character’s relationships with each other as they sift through the unfolding circumstances.
The Great God Pan is now playing at Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street, between Ninth and Tenth Avenues through January 13, 2013. For tickets call 212-279-4200 or playwrightshorizons.org
Photos: Joan Marcus