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The Great God Pan

What was he doing, the Great God Pan
Down in the reeds by the river?
Spreading ruin . . .
. — Polly, an old woman trying to remember the rest of this Elizabeth Browning's poem "A Musical Instrument" that she used to recite during her days as a baby sitter.
The Great God Pan
Jeremy Strong
(Photo credit: Joan Marcus)
Even in a season with as little in the way of exciting and satisfying new plays as this one, one can always anticipate something fresh and thought provoking from Playwrights Horizon. With The Whale at their second stage to prove my point, I anticipated more good news on Amy Herzog's new play, The Great God Pan., especially since I've been a Herzog fan since I saw After the Revolution at Williamstown and again at Playwrights Horizon.

4000 Miles, produced by Lincoln Center, was less expansive, but it again drew on the young playwright's own family history to create an engaging story with strong, characters. While many playwrights have tapped into their family histories again and again (think Eugene O'Neill and Tennessee Williams), you can't blame Ms. Herzog for wanting to move into new territory as she does with the just opened The Great God Pan. This time she trades the Joseph family members for more fictional ones and tells what's essentially a relationship story complicated by the effect of repressed childhood memories.

The printout of an interview by Playwrights Horizons' artistic director Tim Sanford with the playwright that's handed out at the end of the performance gives a fascinating glimpse into Ms. Herzog's motivation and her process of developing her research into abuse and her very personal and intense interest in childhood memories into a play. Somehow that interview is as interesting, if not more so, than the play that prompted it.

Like After the Revolution, the new play is sensitively developed and has a generously sized cast. It again focuses on one character who is faced with a bombshell revelation. Unlike the uber -achieving Emma, the pivot of After the Revolution, Jamie (Jeremy Strong), is a bright 32-year-old investigative reporter whose career, despite a post-college Fulbright, hasn't really taken off. . Neither are things going smoothly in his 6-year relationship with Paige (Sarah Goldberg) a former dancer who's in the early stages a new career as a social worker.

The surprise revelation this time comes through the resurfacing of Frank (Keith Nobbs) an early childhood neighbor who's found Jamie via the Internet. The meeting with Frank triggers painful self-analysis, exacerbates his immediate problem with Paige and brings some shocking new revelations from Cathy and Doug, his parents (Becky Ann Baker and Peter Friedman). However, with the play heavily research rather than personal experience driven, the people Jamie interacts with come off too much as expository figures — in short, as somewhat frustrating authorial contrivances.

Jamie's story relies on too familiar psychological issues for any really surprising dramatic developments. The clue to the real and deeper mystery resides in Elizabeth Browning's poem "A Musical Instrument" that Frank and Jamie's baby sitter Polly (Joyce Van Patten) used to read to them about the Great God Pan with his far reaching tentacles of ruin.

My comments about the characters as contrivances is not to say that the actors don't give their all to the roles given them, including Van Patten who has only one scene as the aged and infirm Polly. Jeremy Strong has bravely taken on the rather passive and emotionally uptight Jamie. He more than lives up to his name in the way he captures his character's pain and discomfort as he tries to come to grips with his past and present. The actor is on stage in all but the two scenes involving girlfriend Paige (the excellent Sarah Goldberg) with Joelle (Erin Wilhelmi), a young patient with an eating disorder that feel more "planted" than organic. Good dramatist that she is, Herzog does manage to connect everything,.

The unfolding tensions are effectively established in the understandably awkward, pause filled opening scene. After all, not having seen each other for twenty-five years doesn't give these two young men any really detailed memories to reminisce about, the exception being the baby sitter they shared. Usually the urge to connect with one's past would involve people one new longer than through age seven, so this is hardly a case of kindred spirits rediscovering their similarities. In fact, the differences between the men the children have become is pronounced: Frank's earring, tattoos and overall look fit his being, as Jamie puts it, "very gay." Jamie is more of a well educated Mr. Average and his addressing Frank as "dude" is clearly a forced attempt to sound natural and for some reason a need to project a macho persona.

Since Frank obviously did not seek out Jamie to rekindle a long ago friendship it doesn't take long for him to let loose with his big shocker: He is in the midst of closing the book on his father's pedophilia. Jamie is shocked all right, and sympathetic, but declares himself unable to help. Yet, as expected, the rest of the play deals with how this get-together will impact on Jamie's loving but distant relationship with his parents in New Jersey, as well as his relationship with Paige which just happens to have hit a crisis after six years of living together.

Under Carolyn Cantor's direction what happens in the aftermath of that memory niggling opening plays out smoothly and in a series of well-paced duets, each of which brings further clues about what makes Jamie tick (or not tick). Though Herzog once again demonstrates her gift for creating unanticipated twists and turns, audiences looking for a mystery in the sense of a plot with a lot of action and a definitive resolution will be disappointed, as will anyone expecting any new insights into how retrievable early memories are.

In order to support the aura of a psychological riddle without having it come off as a TV-ish case history of the week and also to abet the fluid movement from location to location, The Great God Pan is less realistically staged than Herzog's previous plays. Instead of carefully detailed and fully furnished sets, scenic designer Mark Wendland has created a comparmentalized box with built-in chairs and tables. It's all imprinted with digitalized forest imagery. The various parts of this abstract playbox are moved forward and backward to delineate the various locations. It works well and is a clever metaphor for the easy to get lost-in landscape of memory. But clever and functional as those forest images are this staging does not do much to make the audience feel more connected to these characters.

While I found the The Great God Pan too schematic to be as satisfying as < i>After the Revolution, Amy Herzog is too interesting a playwright to miss even one of her less tjam perfect works. Fortunately she is prolific as well as talented and another recent play, Belleville,/i> is coming to the New York Theatre Workshop next Spring.

The Great God Pan by Amy Herzog,
Directed by Carolyn Cantor
Cast: Becky Ann Baker (Cathy) Peter Friedman (Doug), Sarah Goldberg (Paige), Keith Nobbs (Frank), Joelle (Erin Wilhelmi), Joyce Van Patten (Polly) .
Sets: Mark Wendland
Costume: Kaye Voyce
Lighting: Japhy Weideman
Sound: Darron L West
Stage manager: Cole P. Bonenberger
Running Time: 85 minutes
Playwrights Horizon Main Stage 416 West 42nd Street
From 11/24/12; opening 12/18/12; closing 1/13/13.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at December15 th press matinee
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