stage dive

Theater Reviews: The Great God Pan and My Name Is Asher Lev

The Great God Pan - Playwrights Horizons/Mainstage Theater
The Great God Pan Photo: Joan Marcus

The Great God Pan
Amy Herzog is becoming a leading specialist in American amnesia. In her plays, well-meaning parents can be subtle propagandists, their children half-conscious accomplices in their own brainwashing. Often, the most reliable truth-teller turns out to be a crotchety elder who’s beyond niceties, beyond the fog of moral clarity. Nobody’s a wallower; everyone’s an overachiever or an idealist (or both) with a sideline in world-saving and little inclination toward gooey, self-indulgent introspection. (Her lefty, brainy, righteous middle-class Jews really are the inheritors of a literary tradition of Wasp repression — only with less booze.) When the past comes calling, Herzog’s people look dutifully for the cleanest exit and, finding none, begin gently to implode. Sometimes we see the healing begin (as in the joyously received 4000 Miles, her most popular play to date); sometimes we don’t.

The latter was the case in After the Revolution, Herzog’s semi-autobiographical portrait of a family of Marxist intellectual-activists dealing with buried secrets about their late, martyred patriarch. The Great God Pan — also directed by Carolyn Cantor — bears some similarities to After and also shares a few of its weaknesses: It can lapse into the prosaic and Oprah-ish, and it periodically capsizes itself trying to pull an overfleshed supporting character, thrashing, into its dainty one-man life-raft. It’s also either the most sinuously insulting or the most devastatingly accurate portrait I’ve seen of thirtysomething straight-male emotional compartmentalization and moral paralysis. It is, quite possibly, both insulting and accurate. (I speak as a card-carrying member of that tribe.)

We follow Jamie (the protean, always-interesting Jeremy Strong), a freelance journalist with a live-in girlfriend, Paige (Sarah Goldberg), blissfully detached, not-quite-retired, yoga-and-politics parents (Becky Ann Baker and Peter Friedman), and the sort of mild commitment issues that seem to come factory-standard with his demographic. Jamie, in his early thirties, is a grind who’s never found purchase. Even at this late date, and despite a lifetime of vague diligence, he’s all promise, no payoff. (Strong physicalizes the guy perfectly, giving him a sort of gentle sloping quality, a posture of tactful retreat passed off as easygoingness: Open his mouth, and you’d expect to find two tiny rows of baby teeth.) In a fight with Paige, Jamie’s battle cry is, “I’m listening to you, I’m hearing what you’re saying.” Her riposte: “I know, baby, that’s what you do, you always listen to me. You listen. You don’t act.”

But Freelance Hamlet is about to find his back against the wall. Visited by a childhood friend he barely remembers (played by the wonderful Keith Nobbs), Jamie learns that he may have been exposed, at age 5, to a neighborhood child molester. He can’t recall any such incident, but his very lack of recollection plunges him into low-level panic, which turns to horror as he interrogates his parents and a dotty old babysitter (a quietly terrifying Joyce van Patten), and uncovers little pustules of white lies that have been festering since the latchkey anxieties of the eighties. These once-innocuous little mistruths might (might) add up to a Big Problem, but Jamie’s not in the habit of looking back. Hell, he’s not much in the habit of looking forward, either. He can’t clarify his status with Paige, even after she tells him she’s pregnant. Paige, a dancer turned therapist, has her own troubled past, her own struggle with shame — a struggle this slender play doesn’t quite have room to accommodate properly. Goldberg does her best, but Paige dangles a bit. (I believe I enjoy Herzog’s male ingenues more than her female ones; something about their stunned lack of self-knowledge makes for better drama.) Whether or not Jamie was molested is the play’s operative mystery, but not its obsession: Something has cauterized his past, amputated his future.

I strongly suspect every woman suspects something like this when her male partner suddenly and unexpectedly turns into a dial-tone, usually when the chips are down on a major life decision; and I suspect some of them are right to suspect. Sexual abuse, so widely retailed by the media in our simulcast-confessional age of TV interventions and social-media breakdowns, can seem too handy a narrative tool. But Herzog makes her case with an only occasionally heavy hand.

And she makes it, as usual, without any showy formal or stylistic signatures. Her characters speak casually and naturally, in the jagged contemporary mode; where they evade or break off a thought is far more illuminating than what they actually say or how they say it. Friedman and Baker both do tremendously good work negotiating these craters as Jamie’s benignly checked-out parents, Doug and Cathy, mild grotesques who deliver deflections and blandishments with the force of death-sentences: “You were, even at that age, you had a very adult quality, you were very self-possessed.”

But there’s also a certain flatness to The Great God Pan, which can occasionally approach docudrama and which actors can remedy only part of the time. Cantor pushes back with slashing, minimalist lighting and a towering jigsaw puzzle of a set (by scenic designer Mark Wendland), painted in jungly exo-suburban bramble. It’s meant to recall the weedy creek where the children played, back in the day, as Polly (Van Patten), their sweetly flaky babysitter, recited Elizabeth Barrett Browning. (The play’s title is from “A Musical Instrument,” where the goaty god roughly hews a flute from a tender reed.) Yet it sometimes appears to be pushing the performers off the stage, like some kind of Indiana Jones deathtrap.  

That’s unfortunate, because these actors deserve an uncontested stage. They’re the best vectors of Herzog’s message; she’s invested everything in them. Strong, who’s off stage only twice*, carries most of the weight, and deserves the trust placed in him. He is marvelous as a man who’s been equipped with a child’s weapons to fight another generation’s war; his character is in a state of mild to moderate shock, but as an actor, he is never, for a moment, off-balance. Herzog, too, remains a steady comer. Even though The Great God Pan isn’t a major play, it’s an exciting step on the path of her development from good daughter and gold-star humanist to cunning emotional saboteur. She’s a wounded romantic working up her own school of intergenerational horror: the recurring nightmare of being forever at the mercy of those who’ve willfully forgotten more than we’ll ever willingly remember.

At Playwrights Horizons through January 6.

My Name Is Asher Lev
A few blocks away, another child of another generation is also in the process of exorcising his parents — in this case, with tangible, bruising results. My Name Is Asher Lev is a lovely, heart-lancing adaptation of the young-adult novel by Chaim Potok, chronicler of painful assimilations and comings-of-age in the orthodox Jewish community. Asher (a finely focused, deeply sincere Ari Brand) is a teenage Hasid, the son of the Lubavitcher rebbe’s right-hand man (Mark Nelson). He is also, unfortunately, an artist, quite possibly a great one, and the promiscuity of his talent — his inability to submit it to G-d, or his father, or the rebbe, for review — puts him on a collision course with the forces that have shaped and nurtured him. All of this is happening against the backdrop of Stalin, in the immediate wake of Hitler; modernity has arrived at a highly inconvenient time, as it tends to. Asher wants to paint representations in a culture that suspects idolatry; he wants to paint abstractions in a culture that refuses to understand them. Most troublesome, he wants to paint crucifixions. This, for a people climbing out of the caldera of extermination and looking to tradition for guidance, could be an altar-splitter.

Aaron Posner’s take on the novel, as directed by Gordon Edelstein, is spare, piercing, and beautiful. I can’t imagine a young person (or a not-young one) failing to succumb to its sensitive and universal, yet uncompromisingly unsentimental story of necessary severance and ineluctable change. Asher’s painful differentiation from his parents and passage into adulthood contains no prescriptions, no overt life-lessons, but something far more important: honesty. It helps, of course, to employ actors who can’t help but tell the truth, no matter how many parts they play, costumes they wear, or accents they sport: Nelson takes on not just Asher’s father, but the rebbe, a secular artist mentor, and his lively uncle Yakov. He’s a machine, a master actor of the old-school, with a seriousness of purpose that makes this rotisserie of roles feel natural, earned, all equally invested with different shades of the same passion. Jenny Bacon (expert at staying just under over-the-top) works up some shattering moments as Asher’s brittle mother, and provides a few moments of much-needed levity as the various goyische women who flit around the edges of Asher’s increasingly secular life. My Name Is Asher Lev is a simple statement of that simplest and most complicated thing — a person’s creation of him- (or her-) self, that all-important second birth that so many of us put off till adulthood (or death). You should see it, your children should see it, everyone should see it, from Williamsburg to Wasilla.      

At the Westside Theatre through May 26.

* This post has been corrected after it initially misstated that Strong was never off stage.

Theater Reviews: Great God Pan and Asher Lev