With its titular reference to the Greek god of the wilds and its set made up of projected photos of a forest scene, you might think Amy Herzog’s new play is about, or at least takes place in, the outdoors. But The Great God Pan, which opened on December 18th at Playwrights Horizons, is a deceptive story on several levels, the most obvious of which — but not the least complex — involves the disparity between appearances and substance. The lecherous half-goat Pan makes an elliptical appearance, “spreading ruin and scattering ban” in the words of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, but for reasons best understood by the playwright. As for the forest, its shadows fall everywhere on Herzog’s antihero, Jamie, as metaphor for the psychological jungle into which the action of the play will plunge him.
Those actions begin with a revelation: Frank, Jamie’s long-forgotten childhood friend, was sexually abused by his father. More troublingly, he seems to believe Jamie suffered the same fate. But Jamie’s gathering trajectory as a rising journalist with an ex-dancer girlfriend and a comfortable life in Brooklyn allows him little time or emotional space for what may or may not have happened twenty-seven years ago. His forced confidence and willful ignorance will soon crumble, however, under the relentless chipping of Herzog’s writing, which, scene by scene, progressively robs him of his certainties.
Herzog’s fourth play, directed by Carolyn Cantor (also of Herzog’s After the Revolution, at Playwrights Horizons in 2010), explores some common ground with last season’s Obie-winning 4000 Miles, without the latter’s emotional force. Seen from the Freudian divan, both plays present blocked characters in denial of the subconscious forces driving them, but in Pan, there is less that inspires hope in the human condition. Between Jamie’s cowardly defense mechanisms — which flaw his character by showing him capable of some fairly insensitive cruelties — his parents’ too-late concern for the obedient son they unwittingly threw into the lion’s den, and even his girlfriend Paige’s misplaced attempts to psychoanalyze him, the characters may beg our compassion but, within the confines of what is shown of them on stage, might only take away pity for their pains.
Ms. Herzog excels again here at bringing out the grain in otherwise ordinary relationships to reveal some very deep, and even deeply disturbing, textures. But rather than growing closer in adversity, these relationships fall apart. The play’s moral center is supplied, with a certain irony, by Frank, a gay, tattoo-covered double felon and recovering drug addict who is Jamie’s polar opposite, though the reasons why are not the ones Herzog leads us to believe initially by teasing us to see Frank through the optic of Jamie’s preconceptions. If the boyhood playmates do share the same trauma — and this question drives the play with a quietly powerful suspense — only Frank, who is in the process of bringing criminal charges against his own parent, is the resolute challenger of his father’s crimes.
Will and can Jamie remember what happened to him as a four-year-old-boy? What would it change if he did? Herzog tantalizingly brings him to the point where he will have to answer those questions for himself. What is at issue for Herzog, however, is not pedophilia and its victims, she has said, but rather the fits and starts of recovered memory. As fascinating as that topic may be, and as sensitive as the writing is to Jamie’s struggle, neither creates a curiosity to delve much deeper, once the dramatic tension has subsided. The play’s emotional core lies rather in its subtext about failed parents, of which there are three sets, plus one surrogate (Polly, the boys’ caregiver), but, like Jamie in his relationship with Paige, Herzog’s attentions lie elsewhere.
Cantor’s direction is purposeful, even impatient, with Jamie’s dilemma, while Mark Wendland’s forest scene keeps this trying-hard-to-be-accomplished young professional in the green of his youth, where menacing father figures can take advantage of him and mysterious poems still speak to subconscious demons. Jeremy Strong’s fearful and noncommittal Jamie is outshone by Keith Nobbs’s far more honest and sympathetic Frank and Sarah Goldberg’s solid Paige. Becky Ann Baker and Peter Friedman do a good job at seeming not quite sure what kind of parents they should be to their son, while Joyce Van Patten adds some light as the still loving — and clueless — Polly.