Theater Review | THE GREAT GOD PAN by Amy Herzog at Playwrights Horizons (New York)

Of the many contemporary American playwrights Portland audiences have been exposed to in recent years, one has been notably absent: Amy Herzog.

Amy Herzog.
Amy Herzog.

A graduate of the Yale Drama School and one of the current crop of newer names becoming established, Herzog first hit the radar with AFTER THE REVOLUTION at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in 2010. That show went on to a terrific production in the lovely 100 seat Peter Jay Sharp Theater at Playwrights Horizons, and was quickly followed by 4000 MILES in June 2011, which opened at The Duke and then moved to the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center.

Also in the mix was BELLEVILLE, which opened at Yale Rep in November 2011 and is coming to New York Theatre Workshop and Steppenwolf in 2013. Now Herzog is back at it again with THE GREAT GOD PAN, this time on the main stage of Playwrights Horizons.

In AFTER THE REVOLUTION and 4000 MILES, Herzog draws heavily on her own family background to create stories of Jewish Americans in New York’s West Village. Though the landscape is current, characters are still living out the echoes, implications, and contradictions of their parents and grandparents, many of whom were fire-breathing leftist activist intellectuals in the more politically charged times of post WW I, WW II, and the sixties.

But now the political commitment, high hopes and bare-knuckled political warfare of previous generations have been replaced by Facebook, careerism, and scrambling to make rent on that cute one room studio with the crumbling roof on West 4th Street. Many of the themes here have already been covered by Woody Allen, but that does not make them any less effective or enjoyable.

AFTER THE REVOLUTION is a plot-intensive examination of what happens when descendants discover family patriarch and legendary leftist Joe Joseph (Herzog’s actual grandfather) shared US government secrets with the Soviets during World War II. In 4000 MILES, 20 something Leo appears at the village apartment of his grandmother (and Joe Joseph’s widow) Vera, after biking cross country from Seattle. Leo started off with a friend who was subsequently killed by a truck in Kansas.

Both of these plays were quite satisfying to watch. They skillfully evoke, even while not directly dramatizing, the fading echoes of the New York Jewish left in the first half of the 20th century. Gone are the chain-smoking firebrands with the blazing Tolstoy stares and internationalist aspirations for the downtrodden. The Berlin Wall has come down (and been sold), capitalism is transcendent, and leftists are an endangered species seen only in movies – or plays.

In BELLEVILLE and THE GREAT GOD PAN, Herzog heads off in a different direction. She leaves the personal family drama behind and navigates toward the smaller if less certain terrain of relationships between young couples.

In the case of THE GREAT GOD PAN, there are both advantages and limitations apparent in this new focus. On the plus side, Herzog gets the story going in a hurry with a classical opener: a mysterious messenger arrives with news that will change everything. As the lights come up, we find two dissimilar looking characters in mid conversation. Jamie is standard issue urban professional, while Frank is covered in tattoos and has a spiky haircut – clearly he must be a little “alternative”. What could these two have in common? Where would they know each other from? And then comes the message from Frank. What he has to say upends Jamie’s life and sets the entire plot in motion.

This all happens in just a few opening minutes. As the story moves on, Herzog displays strong dramatic craft and lets small details spool out at just the right time. Scenes are short, sharp, and right to the point. In some ways, it’s an old-fashioned mystery. We think we know where we may be headed, but surprises and diversions keep changing the narrative.

The dramaturgy and staging of Herzog’s new play is less specific than productions I saw of AFTER THE REVOLUTION and 4000 MILES, both of which featured painstakingly detailed sets right down to the inevitable fully operational kitchen sink. In THE GREAT GOD PAN, Mark Wedland’s design is a high configurable backdrop painted over with a lush forest image – the dense, ever-changing thicket of memory. The staging and appearance of the show is more theatrical and less TV sitcomish, which I liked. But the language itself (like the characters’ identities, social makeup, and day to day activities) is still straight ahead naturalism. And here’s where a few problems emerged.

When we’re in a theatrical world that is more or less the one we know out here on earth – actual people with social backgrounds and identities, navigating our real world – a lot hinges on the details being right. If a character on stage is supposed to be an aging Jewish grandmother living in the West Village, the audience is going to scrutinize every inch of the presented world and social reality to make sure it corresponds to what they know. Is that woman like the Jewish grandmothers I know? Would they say things like that? Would they laugh or eat that way?

In the case of AFTER THE REVOLUTION and 4000 MILES, the answer is a bold-faced YES. In these earlier plays Herzog is writing from inside the social world she knows, and the texture feels spot on. When those details are right, the plot has a lot less load to bear. We can simply watch characters we know interact. We can identify with them. In 4000 MILES, all Mary Louise Wilson (the grandmother) had to do was give young Gabriel Ebert (the grandson) a skeptical stare and we could fill in the rest.

In THE GREAT GOD PAN, we are dealing with some less socially specific young characters. Interestingly, we are also in an unidentified Anywheresville. And here’s where some elements of the social reality depicted did not quite gel for me. At least one character feels very close to a cliche – the abused youth who inevitably turns out to be (wait for it) gay. At times it feels like the characters are being created in order to serve certain dramatic needs – as opposed to the story flowing out of their essence. The main chacaracter, Jamie (Jeremy Strong), is emotionally inscrutable. That said, his girlfriend Paige, a psychologist who has every bit as much work to do in her own home as office, is wonderfully rendered by the phenomenal actor Sarah Goldberg.

THE GREAT GOD PAN is a compelling story, even if it breaks no new dramatic ground. It’s exciting to see this young playwright move toward America’s main stages, where she very much belongs, and I think we have some very good plays ahead as she truly finds her voice.

In the meantime, the question remains: Who will be the first Portland theatre to bring an Amy Herzog play to us?

4000 MILES would be a major hit with Portlanders.