Vicious Dogs on Premises

Parked on a Pepto-Bismol-pink stage fringed with magenta marabou, four well-dressed actors graphically describe their nightmarish fears. As canine anatomical drawings flash on video monitors, the ironic ensemble details the horrors invoked by pastalike parasites, Ali Lohan, and exploding herpes. This scene opens Vicious Dogs on Premises, the latest postmodern confection from Witness Relocation, but it will never open exactly like this again.

In fact, Vicious Dogs on Premises will never be the same show twice. A collage of gesture dances, scripted scenes, and time-determined tasks -- the order and roles randomly reassigned every evening -- the piece explores the paralysis of choice and the liberation of chance determinacy. Whether the performers are slapping each other for a full minute or confessing their most unattractive qualities, the action is ruthlessly regulated by director-choreographer Dan Safer, who is seated on stage and armed with a stopwatch and a bell.

Though this type of theatrical experiment is familiar territory for New York's avant-garde set, Vicious Dogs on Premises thankfully manages to skirt pretension. With a playful sense of postmodern absurdity, the performers improvise and dance their way through a series of emotional jump cuts, juxtaposing scenes of quirky romance with chaotic interrogations. At the center of it all is the engrossing struggle of the actors themselves, helplessly caught up in the vicelike grip of the show's theatrical machinery, forced to make spur-of-the-moment choices in an oppressive structure that seemingly makes most decisions for them.

At times the use of juxtaposition in Vicious Dogs on Premises allows a deeper, associative beauty to come through, such as the choreographic repetition of a pas de deux to a jazzy cover of Modern English's "I Melt With You." That said, one wishes these flashes of brilliance were less accidental and more purposefully orchestrated; as far as plumbing the relationship between love and cruelty (and, for that matter, dogs), Witness Relocation may have missed the mark. But perhaps that's taking the fun out of Vicious Dogs on Premises, which is more about its playful bark than its bite.

Presented by the Ontological-Hysteric Incubator

at St. Mark's Church, 131 E. 10th St., NYC.

May 30-June 14. Tue., Thu.-Sat., 8 p.m. (Additional performances Fri., June 13, and Sat., June 14, 10 p.m.)

(212) 352-3101 or (866) 811-4111 or www.theatermania.com or www.ontological.com.