Review

Poor Dog's 'Group Therapy' is compelling but confused

A few years ago, Poor Dog Group, founded in 2008 by a group of young theater artists who met while studying at the California Institute of the Arts, brought in a licensed therapist to hold group therapy sessions. They certainly had plenty to “work through,” to use the old Freudian phraseology.

Being an artist in America is tough enough. Being an experimental theater artist in Los Angeles has to be crazy-making. But there were also more personal reasons for turning to outside help, including problems concerning relationships, drinking and turning 30 while still living like you just graduated from college.

Poor Dog decided to tape the sessions, and, creativity being its lifeblood, has now transformed the material into a show. It might, however, be more accurate to say that the company is still in the process of turning these psychological archives into a production.

Presented by the Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA, “Group Therapy,” which opened Thursday for a brief run at the Little Theater at Macgowan Hall, has the distinctive air of a work in progress. This is partly intentional. The piece changes each time it’s performed, with different portions of the years-long group therapy reenacted and commented upon.

Thematically, this makes sense, as the therapeutic work is never over, as any veteran of the couch can attest. But the rhythm of the show, which was also inspired by the 1968 documentary film “Journey Into Self,” in which Carl Rogers conducts a session for eight strangers, feels choppy. The production has the drawback of many devised performance collages: a lack of an integrating aesthetic vision.

The most interesting part of “Group Therapy” is when the ensemble members, either reenacting group therapy scenes or commenting on them, reveal the wounds of being young, gifted and avant-garde in a society that prefers its culture prepackaged. The insecurities that result pervade every aspect of their lives and begin to color how these artists, who consider Poor Dog not just a theatrical home but a family, relate to one another.

As some group members begin to have success outside the group, jealousy, judgment and some paranoia enter the room. Should Adam Haas Hunter feel bad about having done a play at a traditional theater? Jonney Ahmanson feels compelled to justify why he drives out to Santa Monica for film and TV auditions.

Brad Culver is bothered by his reputation as the group’s “ne’er-do-well.” Will his Poor Dog family forever see him as the 18-year-old who can’t get his act together? Meanwhile, mild-mannered Jesse Saler seems to spend much of his stage time wanting to withdraw what he hasn’t yet even spoken.

It’s a shame that the company didn’t allow in more of a political perspective to inoculate against charges of privileged navel-gazing. But Poor Dog is too rambunctious to remain confined to the circle of chairs that places each member momentarily in the hot seat, as a camera rotates around for a close-up that’s projected onto two screens at either end of the stage. Things get weird quickly, and it’s not long before fog inexplicably rolls onto Efren Delgadillo’s set.

The introduction of Lisa Loeb’s hit song “Stay (I Missed You)” from the film “Reality Bites” may seem odd, but it’s a hoot to watch the performers internalize lyrics that obviously have some unintended resonance. Other movements involving lunatic gibberish and karaoke, however, make the whimsy seem random.

But even before these developments I found myself confused over the plan of the production, which is directed by Jesse Bonnell, who maintains a relatively low profile in the cast. Andrew Gilbert, another ensemble member, is also the sound designer, but even his acoustical work becomes part of what increasingly seems like a grab bag.

When you’re wondering whether the performers are merely repeating words that are being fed into their earpieces or commenting live or if you’re trying to figure out the identities of the relationships being discussed, you’re obviously not succumbing to the flow.

Intrigued by the performers, who have such distinctive stage presences, I wanted to know them each better. But barring that, I wanted to be released into a purely theatrical realm, where meaning isn’t articulated but dizzyingly enacted.

One moment where this occurs is when a pregnant Cat Ventura Ahmanson (who’s married to Jonney) delivers a monologue in which one of the company member’s therapist mother comments on all the “golden opportunities” the Poor Dog’s hired therapist failed to take advantage of. The injection of humor is welcome, as everyone knows it’s a sign of good mental health to laugh at the neurosis that will always be with us.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Poor Dog Group’s ‘Group Therapy’

Where: Little Theater at Macgowan Hall, 245 Charles E. Young Drive East, UCLA campus, L.A.

When: 8 p.m. Friday, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday. Ends Saturday

Tickets: $39

Info: (310) 825-2101 or www.cap.ucla.edu

Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

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