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The Great God Pan

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Keith Nobbs and Jeremy Strong.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Memory, both comforting and crucifying, is the driving force behind Amy Herzog's The Great God Pan, which just opened at Playwrights Horizons. A man named Jamie, when forced to address an event from his past that may or may not have occurred, watches his life spiral out of control as a spectrum of eventualities coalesce into one certainty: that he's now uncertain about everything he's always thought he knew. Jamie's wanderings and wonderings, as much as about what is true as what he can prove is true, make for the best play Herzog has yet had produced in New York.

This is not to say that The Great God Pan is good. Rather, it doesn't openly rebuff your attempts to get involved with it, something that couldn't be said of either of Herzog's previous works. In her 2010 New York breakthrough play, After the Revolution, a young woman discovered her family wasn't all she had been led to believe it was; in her 2011 follow-up, 4000 Miles, a young man had to confront his role in the dissolution of most of the major relationships in his life. Both shows explored, to the point of dwelling on, the ugliness inherent in most outlooks of life, and were filled with characters who were determined to view their world as one not worth living in—qualities that were off-putting for anyone who believed a play should contain at least something for the audience to grab onto.

Herzog has certainly not avoided all of those issues here, with Jamie (Jeremy Strong) not only questioning whether he was long ago molested by the father of his childhood friend, Frank (Keith Nobbs), but also on the bitter outs with his live-in girlfriend, Paige (Sarah Goldberg), with whom he shares a bond of mutual distrust; and Jamie's parents, Cathy and Doug (Becky Ann Baker and Peter Friedman), who once experienced marital problems that led them to house Jamie with the suspect in question because they feared for their status in the community. The dementia-riddled babysitter who might hold the key to the truth (Joyce van Patten) and the anorexic woman named Joelle (Erin Wilhelmi) that Paige is treating, only contribute to the darkness.

For such misery to function dramatically, it must be united with an underlying structure that supports it and builds it into something more than despair; Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams were masters of this particular art. But this remains not among Herzog's strengths: There's an airless aimlessness about the proceedings as she checks off the various configurations ("confrontation with girlfriend," "admission to parents," "realization of deeper concerns") that gives the action an irritated, lurching feel that mars Jamie's fluid evolution. The lack of a tangible conclusion, another Herzog trademark, only further mutes the pastel grays with which she paints.

For the first time, however, Herzog has added a real urgency to the mix. It thrusts you into Jamie's deteriorating mind, forcing you to question, at the instant he begins to, whether he can believe anything at all anymore. Strong's performance, characterized by initial stolidity that gradually cracks into a creaky mania of its own, is key to summoning the crucial notion of Jamie's own brain betraying him just when he needs it most. Watching his life break apart from exactly the vantage point he does makes all the difference; whereas Herzog usually keeps you at kicking leg's length, this time she's allowing you all the way in.

She also restrains herself somewhat. There's still a disturbing amount of excess in this 80-minute evening—I'd estimate 20 minutes of dialogue could be cut without losing a stitch of content—but she seldom strays when directly addressing Jamie's central journey. After the opening scene, when Frank plants the seed of what may or may not have happened, each new conversation furthers Jamie's concern (or delusion?), leading him to new words and behaviors that promise to make his problem—assuming it ever actually existed—worse rather than better for everyone around him. The resulting slow-motion implosion is fraught with terror and confusion more than a little appropriate given the magnitude of what Jamie is facing, and is the most compelling thing I've experienced from Herzog.

For keeping that under precise control throughout, and never letting the actors push harder than necessary, director Carolyn Cantor deserves special mention. She hasn't overcome the piece's underlying static nature, with every scene being little more than two people barking at each other, so there's a lack of dynamism throughout. (Mark Wendland's pastorally inspired set design, in which walls, tables, and other fixtures emerge from a forest-painted backdrop, does not help.) But when there's a searing point to the shouting, particularly during a critical argument in which Jamie and Paige try to reconstitute themselves by hurling their psychoses at each other at blistering speed, Cantor does not let the focus flag.

Neither, for that matter, do the performers, but aside from Strong everyone has only one emotion to play. Goldberg's smarmy concern registers in her first, argumentative, scene but doesn't lend her the sympathy she needs when things turn serious later. Nobbs's take on the "multiply pierced, somewhat effeminate, wounded" Frank is strictly textbook and not at all as interesting as such a catalytic role should be. Baker, Friedman, and Patten, outstanding actors all, are wasted in one- or two-off appearances that add little new information. Wilhelmi portrays an alluring fragility when she's onstage; too bad her character is utterly tangential to the main story.

Then again, pretty much everything other than Jamie is. He lives up to the character invoked in the title, which is taken from the Elizabeth Barrett Browning poem "A Musical Instrument": a half-god, half-earthly being lodged in the worst places between the two existences. Jamie's struggle to define himself, and free himself from the prison of a memory that may or may not be accurate, is the defining and only satisfying element of The Great God Pan. Nothing else here is even remotely as memorable.

The Great God Pan
Through January 6
Playwrights Horizons Mainstage, 416 West 42nd Street between 9th & 10th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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