The Great God Pan
Playwrights Horizons, New York
On this showing, recent Obie winner Amy Herzog is not a writer who believes in giving her paying customers easy answers. What she does specialise in is asking pointed questions.
In The Great God Pan, the playwright takes on an issue that would be very timely on the far side of the Atlantic, child abuse.
The catalyst for a great deal of soul searching by Jeremy Strong as Jamie is a meeting with childhood friend Frank for the first time since they were seven years old, quarter of a century ago.
Their lives could hardly have travelled further apart. Jamie has a career in journalism that seems about to take off, is in a happy relationship with Paige—played by Sarah Goldberg who did such a great job at the Royal Court (and West End) in Clybourne Park—and could soon be a father.
Keith Nobbs’s Frank is a heavily-tattooed, gay ex-con and ex-junkie who has just discovered that he may have been abused by his own father all those years ago.
His meeting with Jamie is to relay Frank’s dad’s suggestion that he too might have been a victim.
Since neither boy has any recollection of a bad experience when they were four, the play becomes something of a low key detection story, accompanied by a great deal of anguished soul-searching by all involved (or not as the case may be).
The lack of certainty on all fronts makes this play unusual when compared to standard drama offered up today in almost any medium.
Jamie’s parents, played by Becky Ann Baker and Peter Friedman, manage to muddy the waters rather than clear them, while the boys’ old babysitter, Joyce van Patten playing Polly, is suffering from mild dementia, which makes her a less than reliable witness.
Ultimately, the two pivotal issues are a scratchy sofa and Elizabeth Barrett Browning‘s poem, which gives the play its title and possibly, but by no means certainly, its meaning.
By the end, though, it becomes apparent that memory can disappear or obfuscate as easily as recalling past events. This applies as much to healthily functioning adults as those too young to be sure or suffering from dementia
While the abuse strand fuels the play, the tricky relationship between touchy Jamie and his calm, social worker fiancée is well portrayed. This is then given a new dimension when we see her at work with an anorexic teen, Erin Wilhelmi playing Joelle, whose self-esteem struggles to make it even to first base.
The set, designed by Mark Wendland, seems odd at first sight, featuring images of trees and narrowing the stage space. However, its main purpose appears to be symbolic, on the basis that we are unable to tell the woods for them.
Director Carolyn Cantor marshals her cast well, letting the text do its business without imposing herself.
The Great God Pan may not provide any answers but it is a strong piece that has already extended and should do well if it ever gets to the UK.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher