Amy Herzog’s ‘The Great God Pan’ Opens Off-Broadway: REVIEW
BY NAVEEN KUMAR
The latest in Playwrights Horizons’ solid line-up of new plays this season, Amy Herzog’s drama The Great God Pan opened on Tuesday with its sights set on an ambitious array of hot-button issues.
Primarily an exploration in memory and childhood trauma (namely sexual abuse), the play also touches upon broader issues of mental health, eating disorder, and reproductive rights—with honorable mentions going out to healthcare reform, wartime injustice, and the admirable struggles of small-business owning.
Set in a gentrified Brooklyn neighborhood and liberal New Jersey college town, from its outset Herzog’s drama plays on the tension of revealing a dark underbelly of sexual deviation from underneath a façade of polished well-to-do American life. The whole company delivers grounded and honest performances from a script that sometimes bites off more than can be meaningfully explored and digested in under ninety minutes.
In its opening scene, two very different thirty-something men face each other across a table. Keith Nobbs (Lombardi, Dog Sees God…) is Frank, piercings and tattoos peeking out from underneath his tailored punk clothing. As Jamie, Jeremy Strong (The Coward, Our House) is clean-cut, affluent and buttoned up. Frank is gay and a confessed victim of sexual abuse, reaching out to childhood friends who might be able to help build a case against his father.
The story unfolds as Jamie tries to remember whether he too may have been molested, and grapples with the potential consequences of uncovering unwanted truths. Mounting pressure to start a family with his longtime girlfriend Paige (Sarah Goldberg), a dancer turned nutritionist, further sharpens the play's focus on Jamie’s psycho-sexual disposition. Strong’s performance as a man suddenly afloat and unanchored in his own mind is both tireless and aptly cerebral.
Stage favorites Becky Ann Baker (Good People, All My Sons) and Peter Friedman (Uncle Vanya, Ragtime) play Jamie’s liberal-darling parents, confronted with the painful possibility of having overlooked their worst nightmare. Only Jamie and Frank’s babysitter Polly (an endearing Joyce Van Patten) is spared the same dilemma, as her faculty for memory fades with age and dementia.
Director Carolyn Cantor’s production takes a conceptual approach to the material, with mostly two-character scenes staged around Mark Wendland’s shape-shifting Rubik’s Cube set printed to resemble a northeastern forest, though perhaps meant to suggest amorphous vestiges of lost memory. The set, though accommodating and dynamic, restricts the play’s action to a narrow front portion of the stage in an already intimate space.
Packing this much into a brief drama requires a kind of short-hand that can sometimes lead to characters that resonate like stereotypes. Though Herzog’s play doesn’t always appear exempt from this danger, a remarkable cast of performers prevents the possibility.
(photos: joan marcus)You can follow Naveen Kumar on Twitter @Mr_NaveenKumar.