‘The Great God Pan’ at Next – When narrative runs out of thread, the drama is left dangling
By Lawrence B. Johnson
The setup of Amy Herzog’s play “The Great God Pan” is intriguing: A man in his early thirties reconnects with a childhood chum who makes deeply disturbing claims about their formative years. Problem is, where we ultimately expect catharsis the playwright leaves us merely teased. And despite director Kimberly Senior’s sensitive and tempting effort, the current production at Next Theatre cannot magically spin this fragment into whole cloth.
Jamie (Brett Schneider), a successful journalist and seemingly well-adjusted soul, possesses all the mental acuity his trade requires. But he recalls virtually nothing of his early childhood – not even when his parents remind him of events in detail. This peculiar circumstance comes to light when Frank (Matt Hawkins), a childhood friend whom Jamie hasn’t seen in many years, asks to meet with him.
Frank, who has seen some pretty rough times, is pursuing a case against his own father for allegedly molesting him as a boy. He wants Jamie to help him because – how can he put this? – well, because Jamie likely remembers that it wasn’t only Frank whom his father molested.
But Jamie can barely grasp what his friend is talking about. He recalls nothing unusual about Frank’s father. A seed of doubt is planted, however, and from it sprouts an agony that edges into anguish. Even as Jamie continues to insist he has no recollection of any abuse by Frank’s father, the very uncertainty wrenches his life from its groove of contentment. His parents (Jan Radcliff and James Leaming) aren’t sure they want to know.
Paradoxically, Herzog’s narrative settles into a groove of characterization that never allows Jamie even a glimpse of self-discovery. Near the play’s end – no spoiler alert here because Herzog reveals nothing to spoil – Jamie receives a strong indication of what might have happened to him. But this insight is offered obliquely; he doesn’t need to face it immediately. Curtain. Pretty well made first act. But wait. That’s the play. That’s it.
While I’m waiting for the sequel in which we actually learn something about our hero – like what he’s been told and how he’s going to react – I could say this sort of cliff-hanger finish worked to better effect in Frank Stockton’s short story “The Lady or the Tiger.” But as one keenly interested in that twilight zone we call the unconscious mind, and how early trauma can create dense memory filters, I came away from “The Great God Pan” very sure of one thing: The playwright took an easy exit.
This play is also the second I’ve seen recently that relied on numbing repetition as a dramatic device. Like Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s “Good Boys and True,” where we suffer the perverse minimalism of “No, I didn’t” modulating to “It will be OK,” Herzog’s idea of character development is to have Jamie repeat, ad nauseam, “Nope, can’t remember anything. Nada.” Or words to that effect. This could be a transcript from a grand jury hearing.
There are other issues, as well. At one point, Jamie, a fairly mellow guy, erupts in nasty anger at his rational and solicitous girlfriend Paige. This off-the-charts outburst is unprepared, anomalous and perplexing. Kristina Valada-Viars’ closely gauged performance as Paige, Herzog’s best character, is the solitary gold nugget despite her involvement in an awkward subplot.
Paige, a former dancer whose career has been cut short by injury, is remaking her life as a therapist, and we see her in two consulting sessions with a young woman (Halie Ecker) struggling with anorexia. No doubt, the ex-dancer sees herself in this classic case. Yet, while the first encounter between patient and therapist adds to our understanding of Paige, the follow-up seems repetitive and feels like a digression from the narrative of Jamie’s dilemma.
One of the show’s most appealing performances, Margaret Kustermann’s warm and sparkling turn as an elderly woman who long ago served as nanny to Jamie and Frank, points up another flaw in the writing. The woman supposedly suffers from dementia. I should be so clear headed. At worst she suffers from garden variety forgetfulness. Actually, she’s a great raconteur. For a vivid portrait of dementia, see Christine Mary Dunford’s play “Still Alice.”
What does work here is Courtney O’Neill’s multi-part set, which allows characters to flow from living room to diner or just retire to the sidelines, all before our eyes. And director Senior’s adept hand manages to sustain the narrative line even when the text flags in this incomplete work.
- Performance location, dates and times: Details at TheatreinChicago.com
Tags: Amy Herzog, Brett Schneider, Courtney O'Neill, Halie Ecker, James Leaming, Jan Radcliff, Kimberly Senior, Kristina Valada-Viars, Margaret Kustermann, Matt Hawkins, Next Theatre, The Great God Pan