Things Fall Apart: Amy Herzog’s The Great God Pan and Melissa James Gibson’s What Rhymes With America Are Superb, Moving

Van Patten and Strong in 'The Great God Pan.' (Courtesy Joan Marcus)

Van Patten and Strong in ‘The Great God Pan.’ (Courtesy Joan Marcus)

It would be an overstatement to say that Amy Herzog has written the ideal contemporary American drama. But whatever the ideal is, it has to look a lot like The Great God Pan, Ms. Herzog’s latest remarkable play, which opened last night at Playwrights Horizons.

Directed by Carolyn Cantor, The Great God Pan is provocative and subtle, slowly, carefully revelatory and sweetly moving. It is nicely acted, crisply, efficiently directed, thought-provoking, funny and insightful. Best of all, it’s only 80 minutes long. (Do not underestimate the attraction to a reviewer of a short play at the end of a long autumn.)

Its protagonist is Jamie (an excellent Jeremy Strong, with wounds behind his certitude), a thoroughly recognizable type: a dark-haired 32-year-old Brooklynite in a neat plaid shirt, a talented journalist in a mediocre, benefits-free job. He’s living with but not yet engaged to his gorgeous, blond girlfriend of six years, Paige (Sarah Goldberg), a former dancer now in training to be a therapist. Everything seems fine in his life, but everything also seems a bit stalled. Early in the play, we learn that Paige has unintentionally become pregnant. Jamie, worried about their relationship, and about life, does not greet this news joyfully.

As the play opens, Jamie is having coffee with Frank (Keith Nobbs), a tattooed and pierced childhood friend. It’s an awkward conversation: the two men, who were close as boys, have nothing in common now. Frank has reached out to Jamie with news: he is pressing charges against his own father for child sex abuse. He believes his father also molested Jamie.

Ms. Herzog’s previous two plays were based on her own lefty Jewish family. After the Revolution, also at Playwrights, focused on a younger generation trying to make sense of a much older one; in 4000 Miles, at Lincoln Center Theater, that older generation provided stability for a lost younger one. In The Great God Pan, which moves further afield from the Herzog family, she looks at a stagnant generation trying, not necessarily successfully, to come into the full trappings of adulthood—marriage, kids, professional success—and considers whether we (yes, we: it’s my generation, and Ms. Herzog’s) are hobbled by our childhoods or use our childhoods as an excuse for our being hobbled.

Jamie refuses to believe that Frank’s revelation is definitely true, but also refuses to believe it couldn’t be. As the reporter investigates his own past—talking to his parents (Becky Ann Baker as Cathy, his unexpectedly sanguine mother, and Peter Friedman as Doug, his yoga-and-fleece father), visiting the babysitter he once shared with Frank, Polly (a droll Joyce Van Patten), the babysitter he once shared with Frank, in the nursing home where she now lives, and discussing things in increasingly tense conversations with Paige—Ms. Herzog leaves plenty of room for doubt. Some facts uncovered support Frank’s charge, others call it into question, many underline the point that memories are unreliable.

“I’m not even sure anything happened,” Jamie tells Paige as the play nears its climax. “You don’t get to put my whole life, me, in terms of it—you don’t get to do that.” We never get a sure answer of what did or didn’t happen, but we do see Jamie inching toward an understanding of how to handle things now. The past, whatever it is, will always be there, but the present is what needs his attention.

Melissa James Gibson’s What Rhymes With America, at the Atlantic Theater Company, provides no similar uplift. It’s a beautifully written, elegantly staged, deeply melancholic comedy about relationships, estrangement, loneliness and sadness.

Its four characters—Hank (Chris Bauer), a failed academic economist, still in love with the wife who’s divorcing him and desperate to salvage a connection to his teenage daughter; Marlene (a wonderfully sharp Aimee Carrero), that smart and cynical 16-year-old; Sheryl (the divine Da’Vine Joy Randolph), Hank’s confidante, an aspiring actress stuck in an opera chorus; and Lydia (Seana Kofoed), the middle-aged virgin Hank goes on an awful date with—are lost and alone, unhappy with their lives, unhappy with their options, unable to improve them. “Wanting things causes pain,” Sheryl tells Hank during a cigarette break on the opera loading dock after she blows a big audition. Which offers only the solution of not wanting anything in the first place.

Ms. Gibson’s writing is completely engrossing—wildly imaginative, frequently very funny and full of unexpectedly wise epigrams. The staging, by Daniel Aukin, is, like the play, lovely, spare and artfully indirect. With a few set pieces fixed on an open stage (designed by Laura Jellinek), Mr. Aukin can create distinct and sometimes overlapping scenes with quick changes of the very clever and effective lighting (designed by Matt Frey). Sheryl introduces Hank to the concept of enjambment, a thought or a sentence that continues into the next line or scene, and What Rhymes With America is full of it, both in the script and in the staging.

And, of course, in its characters’ lives, which overlap into each other without ever reaching fruition. In a touching but downcast play, it’s a mellifluous term and a depressing reality.

How do you solve a problem like Pacino?

Al Pacino, the Oscar, Tony and Emmy Award-winning movie star, is one of the great screen actors of his generation and a sure box-office draw when he deigns to appear on Broadway. He is also frequently a caricature of himself, a collection of his tics, a parody of his Academy Award-winning performance in Scent of a Woman. Sometimes, as in the Public Theater’s recent The Merchant of Venice, he will turn in a moving performance. More often, as in the revival of Glengarry Glen Ross now playing at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, or in the increasingly omnipresent trailers for Stand Up Guys, he’ll just offer more of the same: bulging eyes, twitching fingers, grunting, inevitable screaming. Where Michael Corleone was restrained and controlled, today’s Al Pacino just rants.

That doesn’t make his performance in Glengarry, David Mamet’s Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece about desperate real-estate salesmen, uncompelling to watch. But it does make his Shelly Levene—the once-great, now-flailing sales legend who comes apart over the course of the play—yet another Pacino screamer, not a unique, emotionally engaging character. Indeed, this handsome production, helmed by Daniel Sullivan (who also directed Mr. Pacino in Merchant), never becomes as engaging as it should.

Bobby Cannavale, who over the last few seasons has transformed himself from a featured sitcom player to a dynamic and intense stage star, brings his focused swagger to the role of Ricky Roma, the flashy, successful young salesman, played by Mr. Pacino in the 1992 movie version. John C. McGinley is intense and hilarious as office hothead Dave Moss, and Richard Schiff is nebbishly neurotic as the milquetoast George Aaronow. David Harbour as the scheming office manager, Jeremy Shamos as a remorse-stricken buyer and Murphy Guyer as the cop investigating the office break-in also turn in fine performances.

But despite all that talent, it doesn’t quite cohere. Mr. Mamet’s dialogue, especially in this echt-Mamet work, should transform into a dirty, staccato poetry. It doesn’t. Levene’s collapse should be devastating. It isn’t. The play is about the death of a certain kind of tough-guy, play-by-your-wits, all-American masculinity. Instead it’s a nostalgia piece of the Mamet that once was. It’s fun to watch, but it’s not authentic.

We’re not sold.

editorial@observer.com