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Theater Review: ‘The Great God Pan’

Aftershocks of early childhood memories

Diana Barth Created: December 19, 2012 Last Updated: December 19, 2012
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Jeremy Strong in the role of Jamie in Amy Herzog’s play “The Great God Pan.”

Jeremy Strong in the role of Jamie in Amy Herzog’s play “The Great God Pan.”

NEW YORK—Amy Herzog’s provocative new play “The Great God Pan” plays out almost like a mystery unraveling.

Two 30-something men meet: Frank (Keith Nobbs) and Jamie (Jeremy Strong) knew each other as children, up to age 7, then, through family moves, have not been in touch.

Frank has initiated this contact to discuss the painful topic that he is bringing charges against his own father for sexual abuse when Frank was a child. He would like Jamie to help if the case develops, but more importantly, he hints that Jamie may have also suffered abuse by Frank’s father.

Jamie, taken aback, denies it. But a possible old memory may have been triggered.

However, back home in his Brooklyn apartment, Jamie has more pressing problems. For the past six years, he has had a live-in relationship with Paige (Sarah Goldberg), who has unexpectedly become pregnant.

Jamie’s not ready to become a father; Paige wants the child, feeling that at age 34 she may not have another chance. And she does love Jamie. But Jamie’s ambivalence angers her.

At a meeting between Jamie and his mother, Cathy (Becky Ann Baker), she claims she knows of nothing remarkable from the past, but does admit that because of her own marital problems many years ago, she and husband Doug (Peter Friedman) had Jamie stay at Frank’s home for almost two weeks when Jamie was about 4.

When Jamie meets with his old babysitter Polly (Joyce Van Patten), now in a nursing home and with intimations of Alzheimer’s, his dredging up her past memories is a losing battle.

Interposed are two scenes involving Paige and a young client, Joelle (Erin Wilhelmi), in the course of Paige’s work as a nutritionist. Paige warmly supports Joelle in the latter’s efforts to gain weight.

But ultimately, Joelle can’t tolerate what she feels is Paige’s pressure to make faster progress, remarking that she must “do it on her own time.” When Paige agrees, one senses that she knows she must carry that comment over to her own life.

Ultimately, this is a play about memory. Are memories real or imagined? More importantly, whether true or not, what is their importance in the adult life of a person? How do memories impinge upon one’s psyche? Do memories leave a permanent imprint on one’s character?

The play, quite intentionally, does not clarify these points, nor emphatically answer questions, nor solve the characters’ problems. I left the theater feeling a bit unsettled, but not negatively so.

The play’s title refers to a poem that Polly sometimes recited to the children when she babysat them.

Jeremy Strong was a particular standout, displaying Jamie’s ambivalence and insecurity with great subtlety. But Carolyn Cantor’s direction has elicited fine performances from the entire cast: All the characters required intricate emotional work, and all the actors more than met the challenges.

The result is an unusual and thought-provoking production with fine ensemble work. The neutral scenic design by Mark Wendland served as an appropriate, nonintrusive background.

“The Great God Pan”
Playwrights Horizons
Playwrights Horizons Mainstage Theater
416 West 42nd Street
Running Time: 1 hour, 25 minutes (no intermission)
Tickets: 212-279-4200 or visit www.ticketcentral.com
Closes: Jan. 6, 2013

Diana Barth writes and publishes New Millennium, an arts publication. For information: diabarth@juno.com.

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