Bug

Tracy Letts
Barrow Street Theater
New York
(2005)

production shot

Under Managing Director, Scott Morfee, Barrow Street Theater in Greenwich Village is thriving by taking risks. Bug by Chicago-based Tracy Letts, best known for Killer Joe, originally premiered at London's Gate Theatre in 1996. This production, which started out in Chicago, has already won two Obies and four Lucille Lortels during its run of almost a year.

The grubby motel setting, courtesy of Lauren Halpern who has great fun turning it into an Olympic Games for bugs through the interval, is pure Sam Shepard. So is Agnes, a waitress in her mid-40s, who lives a lonely, coke-driven life, happy that her violent husband is in prison; and with a sole friend, the lesbian R.C.

When R.C. brings Joey Collins' uncertain, alien Peter around to go to a party, love burgeons for Agnes.

Life is never this easy though. In a clever coup de theatre, Peter disappears into the bathroom after a chaste night and when he reappears, it is actually big Jerry, Agnes' husband fresh from prison. In no time, blood flows.

The good news for Agnes is that her relationship with Peter develops well. The only minor clouds on the horizon are his neurosis about visitors and a minor infestation of bugs.

Rapidly, the bugs take over the mental space of this fragile couple and they descend into the kind of horror seen in the plays of the late Sarah Kane. Perhaps the worst of it is that as the couple starts scratching at subcutaneous larvae, there is a real desire for audience members to do likewise. Then again, a tooth extraction that makes Marathon Man look tame is a good competitor for the most squirm-inducing moment.

It takes a considerable time to discover whether Peter is a hapless victim of a bizarre army experiment or is genuinely psychotic. This is a compliment to the playwright and also director, Dexter Bullard who trusts a slow tempo that builds to a shocking crescendo.

The acting is very powerful and generally impressive in this slice of In Yer Face drama. Kate Buddeke perfectly captures Agnes' loneliness and desperation, while it is hard to believe that Michael Cullen, who plays Jerry, is not a beast in real life. One hopes that he is merely a fine actor. Joey Collins, new to the cast, fits in well too in the pivotal role of Peter.

Bug is an extraordinary and very shocking exploration of obsession and loneliness. It doesn't make comfortable viewing but is constantly gripping and compelling. It is well worth a visit, as the awards and long run make clear.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher