About halfway through Amy Herzog’s The Great God Pan, an elderly babysitter, Polly (Joyce Van Patten), says to one of her former children, Jamie (Jeremy Strong), “Look at you. You’re so old. You have wrinkles here and here.” “It’s not polite to point out a gentleman’s wrinkles,” Jamie replies, somewhat good-naturedly. It’s a small, almost disposable moment, but epitomizes the entire play. Ms. Herzog is obsessed with bodies—with how they change, with how we will them to change, and with how damage done to them, long healed, can come back to emotionally drown us.
Jamie is a journalist whose work focuses on third world tragedies; he is currently writing a piece about an aid worker “who lost an eye and a few fingers to a roadside bomb in Afghanistan.” His girlfriend, Paige (Sarah Goldberg), is a counselor for young women suffering from anorexia and bulimia—Paige has had weight problems of her own and is now pregnant. But most importantly, an old acquaintance of his, Frank (Keith Nobbs), is filing criminal charges against his own father for childhood sexual abuse, and Frank is convinced that Jamie was one of the victims. Jamie cannot remember—most of the crimes were committed while the children were sleeping—but insists on dismissing it: “I have a career, and a beautiful girlfriend,” he tells Frank, “I don’t buy into this idea that something that may have happened when I was four can change all that.”
The Great God Pan follows Jamie as he is plagued by a bad memory. Clues are offered, but never lead to satisfying conclusions: he remembers a scratchy couch that may have belonged to Polly but may have belonged to Frank’s father, while Polly casually tells him that Frank has a history of dishonesty. But this is not a psychological examination of child abuse, like Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin, or a sleazy revenge thriller, like Barry Levinson’s Sleepers; the play is about overcoming the series of events that somehow collate into the person we are in the present.
If this description sounds trite, then it is not doing Ms. Herzog justice. Though The Great God Pan has some creaky moments—it falls into the trap of naming the title of play during its climax—it is nonetheless a sharp and adult work, one that covers serious subjects without ever becoming self-serious.
And Mr. Strong does an admirable job, bearing a heavy load without much assistance from the audience (apart from a few gasps and a renegade ringing phone, the theater was dead silent at the performance I attended). Jamie is not prone to speechifying or summative monologues, so the character must be found in circumlocutory dialogue, a few harsh words towards Paige, and a series of sheepish exchanges. Ms. Goldberg, too, is fine as a woman who is foundering in a lack of communication both at home and at work. “It’s not fair for me to carry this thing around not knowing,” she says early on, referring to a possible abortion—though the line could easily apply to nearly all her interactions in the play.
A little over two weeks ago, Ms. Herzog won The New York Times Outstanding Playwright Award for After the Revolution, a play I have not seen—but if it is as sensitive and as sophisticated as The Great God Pan, the accolade is well deserved.