This is the second Amy Herzog play I have seen this year and I am not impressed. 4000 MILES, which received a lot of critical praise, struck me as slight, the sort of script that might have been a one hour television drama back in the days when television drama existed. It certainly wasn't a play that resonated beyond itself. THE GREAT GOD PAN, now in previews at Playwrights Horizons, is simply clunky. The first scene is one of those ten minutes of awkward exposition that I thought went out with Ibsen. Two people at a table who haven't seen each other in twenty-five years asking those, "What have you done in the past twenty-five years" questions. Then of course there's a bombshell. Frank, a tattooed and pierced gay massage therapist tells his childhood friend Jamie that he (Frank) was abused by his father. Frank wonders whether Jamie remembers anything. It turns out Jamie has no recollection of much of anything about Frank, his father, or a week long childhood stayover at Frank's house. In succeeding expository scenes, parents and a former baby sitter give Jamie more information about his forgotten childhood. Jamie is an award-winning investigative journalist who is a bit remote with everyone who wants to be close to him -- parents and partner Paige, a former dancer who, after an injury, has retrained as a social worker. She's also pregnant and something of a nag. Her nagging has some justification -- after a period of sexual dysfunction, Jamie has impregnated her and now is ambivalent about wanting the child. Jamie is showing the classic symptoms of someone who has been abused as a child. During the course of the play, he comes to realize what is obvious to everyone else seven minutes into the play. Some investigative journalist!
4000 MILES had two interesting, well drawn characters, though it didn't really go anywhere or resonate beyond itself. THE GREAT GOD PAN does not have interesting characters and has a plot out of a Lifetime movie. Most of the supporting characters are there merely to deliver exposition. Paige strikes me as frustratingly weak. Why doesn't she leave Jamie and have the kid? That never seems to be a choice for her. Jamie is so emotionally constipated that he isn't interesting. The title comes from a poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning that all the characters seem to know for some reason. It's a literary allusion that doesn't really lift the prosaic goings on.
The actors make the most out of what they have to work with. I think director Carolyn Cantor made a mistake with her symbolic, ominous woodland setting for a play that basically takes place in a series of urban and suburban interiors. It suggests a symbolic dimension that the play really doesn't have.
The play lasts eighty minutes. It seems much longer. The audience seemed polite but bored.
It may be unfair to judge a play on the basis of an early preview, but this one would need major rewrites to be anything more than it now is. I doubt it can get the wholesale revision it needs during a preview period. We certainly don't need the two long scenes between Paige and her young client with an eating disorder. Paige isn't the central character , her client isn't particularly interesting, and one really has to think about how these scenes connect to Jamie's dilemma. Yes, OK, the client, like Jamie, seems to be denying sexual abuse. Does her appearance really enrich the play? I appreciate that Herzog likes endings that don't tie up all the play's loose ends into a pat conclusion, but this one feels artificial.
Up to now, Playwrights Horizons has had a fantastic six months. This one brings down their batting average a bit.
THE GREAT GOD PAN. Playwrights Horizons. November 25, 2012.