The Great God Pan is literally a revelation
We first meet Jamie (Jeremy Strong) with Frank (Keith Nobbs), two Jersey kids who were friends as young children but who haven’t seen each other in over two decades, having treaded different paths. Jamie, at 32, has become a well-respected journo, living with a beautiful girlfriend, Paige (Sarah Goldberg, in fine form) in Brooklyn. Frank has headed to upstate New York, pursuing a gay lifestyle and having rebounded from skirmishes with the law.
Their divergent lives dovetail in playwright Amy Herzog’s The Great God Pan, making its world premiere at Playwrights Horizons. Frank is bringing up sexual abuse charges against his father (never seen) and suggests that Jamie might have a reason to be a part of said lawsuit. Jamie politely demurs; he has no such connection to Frank’s father. He can barely remember what the man looked like.
But then he starts learning things. Like the fact that as a four-year-old, he spent a week living with Frank’s family while his parents, Cathy and Doug (Becky Ann Baker and a particularly elliptical Peter Friedman), worked through some early troubles. Jamie is aghast. How could he, a reporter, not have known this information? Or remembered it?
Then details come back to him – a scratchy couch, a quote from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem “A Musical Instrument,” which lends itself to Herzog’s important title. These oblique fragments aren’t enough to reveal the full tapestry of Jamie’s, but make him aware that there are more holes than he ever imagined. Suddenly, Jamie wonders if this can excuse some of the chapters in his life of which he is less proud – estrangement from his parents, sexual difficulties with Sarah. Such an awful discovery could hurt him, but it would also, in a morbid way, be a gift. And these details matter to the playwright as well. Pan is a woodland god-goat who invented music by attacking plants to invent a reed pipe; it’s a metaphor for a violent sex act that ultimately gave birth to beauty. In this way, Herzog uses deft imagery to make her layered work that much richer, and also illustrate the horrific act on which Frank opens the proverbial Pandora’s Box without having to be explicit in doing so. The nimble, almost subversive way in which Herzog entwines subject, theme, and imagery, makes Pan register dramatically and emotionally.
It’s possible that not all of Jamie’s circumstances can be pinpointed to a repressed early childhood trauma, but like the poet Rainer Maria Rilke once advised, Herzog lives in the questions. And director Carolyn Cantor, who also helmed Herzog’s last PH production, 2010’s After the Revolution, knows how to mine even the seemingly lightest of moments for both maximum ambiguity and specificity. (Similarly, Mark Wendland’s landscape-patterned set makes scenes feel both personally localized and as though they could be taking place anywhere.) This includes what initially seem like tangential scenes between Paige, a dancer-turned-social work student, and Joelle (Erin Wilhelmi), the anorexic teenager she has been assigned to help. Both young women have been damaged, hurt in ways that Herzog never spells out, but that Cantor’s cast intuits to the audience. And their scenes reflect upon Jamie’s plight in a dual way. It makes us want to shake him and say “Grow up! Find out the truth so you can move on!” It also reminds us to be patient; everyone reaches personal breakthroughs in their own time.
Strong embodies Jamie’s man-child solipsism with the typical polish audiences have come to expect from him, one of his generation’s great actors, peeling back layers of protection to reveal desperation and fear. Nobbs, too, is similarly moving, and handles the restraint with which Herzog has drawn Frank – why can’t he just come out and say everything at once?! – with great care. One wishes for more scenes with the two of these actors, not to mention the rest of the cast that fills up the two- and three-handers that comprise each scene (Joyce Van Patten is also magnificent in the small role of a babysitter who once cared for Frank and Jamie), but each characters’ appearances have been carefully apportioned. This is a polished work as deep as it is rich. In Pan, a play about the betrayal of memory, Herzog has crafted a work to remember.
The Great God Pan
At Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street. Through Jan. 13. http://www.playwrightshorizons.org/shows/plays/great-god-pan/.
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