Not since Martin McDonagh hurtled on to the scene in the mid-1990s has a first-rate English-language playwright emerged as prolifically as Amy Herzog. Since 2010, when her After the Revolution, about a squabbling family of New York progressives, made its mark, she has given us Belleville, a study of a young American couple in Paris that premiered in 2011 at Yale and will be produced off-Broadway in February; and the marvellous, unsentimental 4000 Miles, which details the relationship between a young man and his left-leaning grandmother.
The Great God Pan, Herzog’s latest drama, is a welcome addition to her sharp series of portraits of family life. The dialogue is unflinchingly realistic, the acting choices, especially from Jeremy Strong as a journalist, are committed, and the 85-minute running time is suited to the storytelling. If the evening, directed by Carolyn Cantor, left me occasionally unmoved, that may be the result of Herzog forgoing the taut one-relationship focus of Belleville and 4000 Miles and the boisterous group dynamic of After the Revolution in an attempt to sketch a family picture via conversations with outsiders.
Most of the scenes in Pan, which takes its title from an Elizabeth Barrett Browning poem, “A Musical Instrument”, are two-handed. Frank, a gay massage therapist in his early 30s, has returned to New York to tell his childhood friend Jamie, the journalist, of a momentous decision. Frank has decided to initiate a criminal prosecution against his father for sexual abuse committed years before, and asks Jamie if he has any memory of having suffered molestation.
Jamie informs his girlfriend, Paige, of the conversation. A former dancer turned social worker, Paige urges Jamie to give the matter consideration, even as the dynamics of their own relationship – she is pregnant, and deciding how to proceed – might also benefit from therapeutic unearthing.
Scenes in which Paige counsels a young woman suffering from an eating disorder add little to Herzog’s theme of memory, sexuality, and how their interplay creates lifelong challenges. More effective are the moments when Cathy and Doug – Jamie’s parents, who are given fine, lived-in performances by Becky Ann Baker and Peter Friedman – inform their son of a difficult moment in their own marriage. By contrast, the relationship between Jamie and Frank is more tantalising than satisfyingly worked-out.