People in Melissa James Gibson's enchanting, tough-minded, 85-minute play, "What Rhymes With America," feel their way around life with an off-balance neediness that is both morose and unexpectedly engaging.
For example, Hank (Chris Bauer) and his conflicted, self-sufficient teenage daughter (Aimee Carrero) never look at each other, because they're talking on either side of an (unseen) door to the home his wife made him leave. A lonely woman (Seana Kofoed), with whom Hank has a great almost-sex scene, writes unpublished stories set in "transitional spaces." The only character who knows what she wants (a spectacular Da'Vine Joy Randolph) is an actress stuck as an opera extra.
Gibson, the ever-provocative author of such oddly titled work as "This" and "," makes us identify with people who struggle on the sides of what they see as the center of things. Daniel Aukin, her frequent director, uses a vast sterile-looking space -- and an adorably unexplained Greek tragedy mask -- to ignite all kinds of unpredictable individual passions. And Gibson loves words, which makes everyone she creates more fascinating than they themselves believe.
Amy Herzog's "The Great God Pan" is another of this celebrated playwright's delicately observed, emotionally conventional plays. Like "After the Revolution" and "4000 Miles," this one explores obvious relationships with perceptive detail and unsurprising psychology.
Jamie (Jeremy Strong) is a nice guy who always did the right things. But he doesn't talk much about his feelings, even to his longtime girlfriend (Sarah Goldberg). He also doesn't want to commit or to face what she describes as sexual dysfunction. Enter Frank, a childhood friend (Keith Nobbs), a troubled kid Jamie hasn't seen for decades. Frank, gay with spiked hair and a prison record, is putting together a sexual-abuse case against his father and wants to know if the man also molested Jamie.
We are in recovered memory territory here, as the characters, directed by Carolyn Cantor, relate in sensitive duets and trios against a woodsy backdrop that, significantly, looks like camouflage. His good parents (Becky Ann Baker, Peter Friedman) also have a secret and so, perhaps, does the boys' aged baby-sitter (Joyce Van Patten). It all plays out with dramatic neatness, and no small amount of mundane sentimentality.
WHAT "What Rhymes With America"
WHERE Atlantic Theater Company, 336 W. 20th St.
INFO $70; 212-279-4200; atlantictheater.org
BOTTOM LINE Enchanting, tough-minded, almost comedy