What do we do when faced with an almost unthinkable incident from our past -- or an unexpected dilemma in our present? Do we just, as Stephen Sondheim urged, move on?
If Amy Herzog had all the answers, she'd probably be making millions of dollars on the OWN network. Instead, she's earning wayyyyyyyyy less by becoming one of our most intelligent, probing playwrights -- someone who asks all of us to grapple with this monumental question in her work, from After The Revolution and 4000 Miles through her latest, The Great God Pan, which is being given a gorgeously-acted world premiere at Playwrights Horizons.
While Herzog's previous plays have taken their time revealing their secrets, this 85-minute one-act, directed with extraordinary sensitivity by Carolyn Cantor, dives headfirst into its subject. We immediately find Jamie (Jeremy Strong), a 32-year-old straight journalist, meeting with Frankie (Keith Nobbs), a childhood friend he hasn't seen in 25 years and who has tracked Jamie down to share some devastating news: Frankie was abused as a child by his father. Not only does he want to know what Jamie remembers from their childhood, but Frankie (gay, heavily tattooed, and clearly still mid-crisis) practically implies that Jamie was also a victim.
Jamie quickly denies any such memory of molestation, and at first, appears to brush off the conversation like a piece of lint on a sweater. But as he shares Frankie's story with his girlfriend of six years, Paige (Sarah Goldberg), his suburban parents Cathy and Doug (Becky Ann Baker and Peter Friedman), and his and Frankie's now semi-senile babysitter Polly (Joyce Van Patten)– who used to recite to them the Elizabeth Barrett Browning poem that lends the show its title –Jamie must question what he really knows about his dimly-remembered past. Soon, everyone else around him is re-evaluating his or her actions, both past and present, as well as their relationships to Jamie and each other.
Herzog creates this portrait through a staccato series of sharply crafted scenes (all of which take place on Mark Wendland's puzzle-like, landscape-patterned unit set, which cuts down on scene-change time), that expertly balance exposition, explanation, and examination. Herzog's finely-tuned ear for how people actually speak and react in difficult situations is always in evidence, as is her keen understanding of human behavior, from how Jamie's parents would behave living in the 1980s in a small New Jersey town to Cathy's discomfort with using a cell phone, and Frankie's physical reaction to Jamie late in the play.
All of the show's tête-à-têtes involve Jamie -- except for two between Paige, a former dancer turned nutritional counselor, and Joelle (Erin Wilhelmi), a young anorexic girl she's treating. While these segments initially seem to take us unnecessarily away from the main journey, they eventually prove to be integral elements of Herzog's larger themes and necessary insights into Paige's character. Still, they might fit better in a longer play.
Both Strong, whose layered performance lives up to his last name, and Goldberg, who impresses with her combination of vulnerability and inner strength, get sufficient time to make an impression on audiences, and rarely waste a moment. But the other actors have the harder task, as Baker, Friedman, Van Patten, Wilhelmi, and Nobbs each only have a few minutes to create a fully realized character. Remarkably, they do so in a seemingly effortless manner, which is a true testament to both their skill and Herzog's sharp writing.
While the show's title might imply that a mythological tragedy is about to unfold, The Great God Pan is a deeply felt story of human beings finally forced to face reality.