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First Nighter: Amy Herzog's The Great God Pan Pans Out But Almost Too Much

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If someone out there is preparing a time capsule to fill future generations in on our analysis-prone age, The Great God Pan, Amy Herzog's new work at Playwrights Horizons, is a must-include. Hoo-boy, what a candidate for posterity it is!

There may exist no other contemporary piece so populated by characters pouring out their feelings, their memories, the secrets they've too long held in, their worries, their checkered childhoods, their strained relationships present and past. And, by equally obsessive contrast in other circumstances, they make a show of denying their feelings, their pained concerns that they could be about to recover disturbing memories.

Herzog is on to a thick passel of important psychological issues and at the get-go is bold about bringing them splashing to the surface. Over the course of her intermission-less 85-minute drama, however, she increasingly turns that commendable boldness into a theatrical bludgeon. As a result, by the fade-out on Mark Wendland's basic set of a woods into which the participants continually wander literally and figuratively, it can strike an initially sympathetic viewer that The Great God Pan represents The Revenge of the Compulsively-In-Touch-With-Our-Feelings Age.

When journalist Jamie (Jeremy Strong) reunites after twenty-five years or so with boyhood friend Frank (Keith Nobbs), he's startled to learn the father of his one-time tag-along chum abused Frank as well as other neighborhood children and that he, Jamie, might be one of the victims.

Having no recollection of any damaging incident, he nonetheless begins to think he could have repressed it. His doubts are compounded when he attempts to patch up an argument with six-year girlfriend Paige (Sarah Goldberg), a social worker, over her having become pregnant and, while confronting that situation with rising rancor, neglects to mention Frank's news but continues inwardly to dwell on it.

Things only worsen after discussions with his parents Cathy (Becky Ann Becker) and Doug (Peter Friedman), from whom he's somewhat estranged. Herzog sees to it, natch, that these two have their own pasts either to recount or keep back when dealing with Jamie and/or with each other. Moreover, Jamie doesn't get much help when he visits partially-memory-impaired former baby-sitter Polly (Joyce Van Patten).

Not knowing what to think or feel, tense from wrangling with the unfortunate development, Jamie only gets a break -- and the audience gets a break from him -- when Herzog includes two scenes where Paige conducts therapy sessions with bulimic Joelle (Erin Wilhelmi), whose hang-ups echo some of the ones harped on in the main story.

As nicely directed by Carolyn Cantor (who worked with Herzog on her previous PH outing, After the Revolution), the cast does expert duty from scene to scene. Strong's impression of mounting uncertainty looks to emanate from his core. Nobbs -- hardly ever the same from role to role but always a version of a man not yet fully matured -- notably hits his mark again.

Goldberg doesn't miss a one of Paige's many dimensions. Baker and Friedman (he's also an After the Revolution veteran) mix their tangled parental emotions with authority. Van Patten provides the lightly addled charm Polly requires, and Wilhelmi's thin, conflicted Joelle is completely and disturbingly convincing.

Just as the cast realizes each scene's full potential, Herzog is as effective line to line -- and not infrequently with brilliance. It's the accumulation of all those lines, all those relentless outpourings that begin to dull her very smart and highly empathetic purpose.

Granted, plays are meant to be compacted interpretations of behavior. (Incidentally, Herzog pulls her title from "A Musical Instrument," Elizabeth Barrett Browning's beautifully complex poem about the gains and losses as humans learn to function.) But plays also need to breathe, and when they're as pressure-cooked as The Great God Pan, they can too often leave the audience gasping for air.

In the final scene when Frank has arranged a second meeting with Jamie for further clarification, Frank makes a comment about the benefits of forgetting. He pointedly questions "this whole pop-psych thing with uncovering, and uncovering." When he said that to Herzog, as she was writing him, she should have listened more closely. He was trying to tell her something she's blocked out to her detriment.