In the woods of suburban New Jersey, two young men stare searchingly into one other’s eyes in the opening seconds of Amy Herzog’s extraordinarily moving “The Great God Pan.”
They haven’t spent time together in the quarter-century since a childhood friendship abruptly ended at age 7. One has come to share a terrible family secret. The other listens, sympathetically at first, then uncomprehendingly.
Herzog, whose “4000 Miles” was one of last year’s best plays, is the Ann Beattie of her generation: A writer so finely attuned to the conversational beats and syncopations of an era, that communication flows with an insistent inevitability that’s always trenchant and almost always heartbreaking.
Directed with delicacy and sensitivity by Carolyn Cantor, “The Great God Pan” (the title is from Elizabeth Barrett Browning) deals with child abuse and memory, and the myriad defenses people are apt to marshal in absorbing their consequences.
Frank (powerfully played by Keith Nobbs, sporting tattoos, leather and hair gel) has asked for a reunion with Jamie (Jeremy Strong, wide-eyed and gentle as the unsuspecting friend).
First Frank explains that he is charging his father with child abuse, who has affirmed the accusation.
Then he reveals that the father has admitted molesting others, and specifically Jamie, whose parents sent him to stay with the boy’s family when their marriage briefly was in trouble. Jamie has no memory of any of it.
Herzog does not end there, however.
With devastating acuity she digs into the impact of Frank’s revelation on Jamie’s relationships with Paige, his girlfriend of six years (Sarah Goldberg, who’s terrific), his parents (the superb veterans Peter Friedman and Becky Ann Baker) and the boys’ now elderly babysitter (the wonderful Joyce Van Patten).
Completing the circle is a young anorectic woman (Erin Wilhelmi) seeing Paige for counseling.
Nothing said or shared among these people is expected; every conversation shivers with emotional truth and an author’s empathy.
I only wish Herzog had as much empathy for her audience. I doubt I’ve ever felt so strongly that an author has left us hanging at exactly the point where a play should have taken us much further.
There’s a plague of one-act plays -- and this is one -- that just seem to stop rather than resolve. At the end of “The Great God Pan,” Jamie has reached a place that even Frank realizes is a precipice. It’s a haunting Act I closer that demands an Act II. It never comes, and what a shame.
Through Jan. 13 at Playwrights Horizons, 416 W. 42nd St. Information: +1-212-279-4200; http://www.ticketcentral.com. Rating: ****
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(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the writer of this column: Jeremy Gerard in New York at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at email@example.com.