By Melissa Rose Bernardo
Updated December 19, 2012 at 05:00 AM EST
Joan Marcus

Amy Herzog’s new drama The Great God Pan — running through Jan. 6 at Off Broadway’s Playwrights Horizons — is almost as inscrutable as it is captivating.

At first, it looks like a mystery: After 25 years, straitlaced journalist Jamie (Jeremy Strong) gets a visit from his boyhood pal Frank (Keith Nobbs), who’s now gay, tattooed, and traumatized. Frank drops an emotional A-bomb — he was sexually abused by his father…. When the shell-shocked Jamie goes home, he finds his live-in girlfriend, Paige (Sarah Goldberg), crumpled on the floor with a bag of Pirate’s Booty. Now we’re knee-deep in a relationship play…. Cut to the next scene, of Jamie visiting his New Jerseyite parents, Cathy (Becky Ann Baker) and Doug (Peter Friedman, so memorable as a modern-day Marxist in Herzog’s 2010 After the Revolution). As Jamie and Cathy clash over Paige’s career and Frank’s announcement — ”I don’t like that at all, him contacting you out of the blue and getting you all upset,” says Cathy — The Great God Pan shifts into family-drama mode.

Yet these tonal twists and turns only make Pan more fascinating. Herzog, who received much acclaim for Revolution and 2011’s 4000 Miles, here does her deepest, most mature writing to date. Every scene reveals at least one fact; each conversation gives Jamie another question to ask, a new way of looking at his own past. (And kudos to Strong for walking the line of contemplative thirtysomething and self-centered you-know-what so beautifully.) Granted, the exchange with his former babysitter (Joyce Van Patten), now wheelchair-bound, did feel a bit overstuffed. But consider: Did we really need to see Paige in her office counseling a patient with an eating disorder (Erin Wilhelmi)? Probably not. But watching her with that thin, anxious girl gives us a glimpse of Paige’s personal demons; it makes her more than just Jamie’s caterwauling girlfriend.

And yet nothing feels superfluous. When we first meet Paige, all it takes is four sentences from Jamie — ”Paige. I owe you an apology. I’m sorry. I freaked out” — and we know what they’re fighting about. Eleven words and we realize what happened the previous night. Five more (”I wasn’t prepared for that”) and we know what’s going to happen. How many playwrights display that kind of economy — and that kind of strength? A?

(Tickets: or 212-279-4200)