Coincidentally, two unrelated plays about group therapy opened last week in small theaters less than a mile from one another. Neil McGowan's comedy Lone-Anon, about maladroit loners subjected to court-ordered therapy, is running late nights at Rogue Machine on Pico near La Brea, while Leslie Hardy's A Good Grief airs the dirty linen of its grief-struck characters at Hollywood's Lounge Theatre, in a production by Fierce Backbone.
The premise of group therapy, and of these plays that depict it, is healing that comes from public confession. Having survived talk shows and reality TV, the power of confession in the theater is a shadow of its former self, and this is the challenge faced by these two plays about group therapy.
To their credit, each has characters with no interest in being at therapy, and these contrarians also allow us to be jurors in the trial of whether such therapy has any benefit. In A Good Grief, workaholic Ruth (Rachel Boller) has been ordered to attend grief counseling by her employer, which has determined that her sarcasm and volatile temper (which we see onstage) are the result of her failure to cope with the recent death of her parents in a car crash.
Meanwhile, in Lone-Anon, antisocial Lincoln (Brian Letscher) opens the play with a "confession" that is unfettered invention and mockery, enraging the group mediator, Mike (Keith Stevenson, who also directed).
In Bill Cole's brightly painted set for A Good Grief — something resembling a church or school multipurpose room — when the characters amble in, one by one, the question for us becomes which of their loved ones has died and what they're going to do about it. Director Jeffrey Wylie's production places its bets on pangs of recognition that the audience might feel for the grieving characters.
Stanley (Gary Rubenstein), ridiculed by Ruth for being a "mama's boy," cuts a Woody Allen–esque figure, a shrugging, bespectacled nebbish and therapy addict whose mother (his only true love) died a year ago. Meanwhile, gruff machinist Ray (Paul Messinger) talks about his father's death as though the old man had been an annoying fly that Ray was finally able to sweep off the windowsill. There exists, however, a far deeper pain, which Ray eventually will confess.
Brenda (Mandy Dunlap) ushered her own father through his protracted demise. He was a man who offered her little support during his life, and yet she felt compelled to care for him — not because he deserved it but from a loftier, theological impulse that creates a philosophical explosion between her and ruthless Ruth.
The excellent ensemble has been cast and costumed with such attention to stereotypic detail that I found myself imagining how much more searing Hardy's play might have been had the actors switched roles — if, for instance, mama's boy Stanley had piercings and a tattoo, and wore something leather, rather than being costumed in a cardigan vest and necktie. Ruth laughs out loud at him, at the cliché, and she's right. But that doesn't necessarily make for the most absorbing stage experience.
Strange as it may sound, the play might provide a richer experience if the audience could simply close its eyes and listen to the characters, as in a radio drama, and hear the way their self-contradictions eventually emerge. The visual cues keep insisting that these characters are made of cardboard. It's hard to tell whether this a richly textured play, but the actors and the text deserve a more nuanced attempted to bring it to life.
Lone-Anon is, at core, an Orwellian social satire, set five years in the future, when the NSA and/or FBI has set up a watch list for people with antisocial tendencies. For instance, if you're invited to a party on Facebook and you don't respond, you may well land on the list and find yourself in a court-ordered therapy session for loners — like the one at the heart of McGowan's very witty play — filled with the kinds of people most likely to instigate psychotic episodes of gun violence and even terrorism.
With new research revealing how personal happiness is directly related to one's sense of connection to loved ones and to a community, the play, in its own wry way, takes a penetrating look at the right to be left alone.
Under Stevenson's direction, the series of therapy sessions held in a shabby meeting room includes an entertaining assemblage of eccentrics and maniacs. Tyson Turrou's Tanner, in army fatigues, can say pretty much all that needs to be said in the way he glares across the room, and in the defiant, terrifying way he crosses the stage. Brenda Davidson's Franny is a human mouse. Playwright McGowan takes the stage as Dabney, a reasonable guy struggling to fathom the madness he's just landed in, while newcomer Senise (Melissa Paladino) strategizes to avoid being carted away in a paddywagon for the crime of ignoring a Facebook invite.
Like A Good Grief, Lone-Anon is a cartoon, but it's a political one that soars, propelled by its adroit comical performances and by the prospect of a terrifyingly plausible future.
LONE-ANON | By Neil McGowan | Rogue Machine Theatre, 5041 W. Pico Blvd., Mid-City | Fri.- Sat., 10:30 p.m.; through Dec. 14 | (855) 585-5185 | roguemachinetheatre.com
A GOOD GRIEF | By Leslie Hardy | Fierce Backbone at the Lounge Theatre, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd. | Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through Nov. 23 | (323) 469-9988 | fiercebackbone.com