The Great God Pan

Mythic allusions are having a bit of a renaissance this season at Playwrights Horizons. First, Samuel Hunter reached for Herman Melville and the Old Testament in lending some symbolic heft to The Whale, his moving chronicle of the last days of a morbidly obese man. And now comes Amy Herzog, whose latest title, The Great God Pan, apparently refers to the Greek god of nature and hunting, a lecherous being whose angry shouts tended to arouse panic in humans. It should be noted that, aside from the title--- and the imposing Arcadian set by Mark Wendland ---- there is not much nature to be found in Herzog's ultra-realist play. There is, however, plenty of panic.

The action begins with a haunted and multiply-pierced young man named Frank, who confronts his childhood friend Jamie over coffee in New York. They grew up in the same New Jersey town, and after reminiscing about their ailing babysitter, Frank drops the bomb: "I'm in the process of opening a criminal case. Against my father. For sexual abuse."

The implications of this announcement for Jamie, a repressed thirty-something Brooklynite, grow somewhat more troubling over the play's ruthlessly efficient eighty minutes. There's some reason to believe that Jamie might be repressing memories of his own abuse as a very young child. And as the bond between Jamie and his girlfriend Paige starts to unravel, Jamie questions the ways in which the stray parts of a hazily remembered childhood can come to define an adult life.

Herzog has a knack for spare, intimate dialogue, which gleams most vividly in the scenes between Jamie and Paige, especially in a late, venom-spewing argument between them. The script is graced with good humor that manages to avoid obvious laugh lines. With one exception--- Polly the elderly babysitter, whose dementia rings false, and whose scene is overcooked--- the characters have been given enough shading to appreciate them in three dimensions.

For all its ambition, though, the pleasure of watching The Great God Pan depends largely on your interest in a the rather conventional problems faced by a smart, good-looking, well-intentioned middle-class couple in Brooklyn. There is plenty of fine texture in the portrait, but there is much less to really provoke or challenge, even with the arsenal of hot-button topics the script dances around (sexual abuse is just the beginning.) Herzog means to avoid a substantial discussion of these topics anyway, but what’s left is an oddly gentle drama that has less staying power than it otherwise might. This has something to do with its protagonist, who is restrained almost to the point of narcissistic emptiness--- by the end of the evening, you may feel as if you barely got to know Jamie, which inevitably makes you wonder whether he was worth knowing at all.

Jeremy Strong hits plenty of the right notes as Jamie, while Sarah Goldberg expertly taps into the conflicted Paige, especially in a subplot involving her therapy practice. As Jamie's father Doug, Peter Friedman arguably steals the evening in one revelatory scene. The cast has been astutely directed by Carolyn Cantor, whose staging is simple and elegant.

Herzog's economy of language is as impressive as that of any playwright working today. But economy, of course, is not an end in itself; it's a tool in pursuit of answering a larger dramatic question. The Great God Pan asks a murky question, and gets a murky answer, but it's worth seeing, if mainly to help you mark the progress of a magnificently thoughtful artist.