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Very Slow Descent into Madness

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Tracy Letts pours more blood on the stage

in a tale of hopeless mental illness

Tracy Letts’ new play “Bug” ultimately becomes interesting, but first you will experience an overly long first act that opens with a 15-minute character study of the female lead.

The script, though uneven, is often humorous and occasionally powerful, but director Dexter Bullard handles it with a kind of brutish naturalism that gives “method” acting a bad name. We first see a desolate Agnes in an Oklahoma motel room, drinking, smoking, and being bored. We get it. Shannon Cochran plays the role for every conceivable nuance in Agnes’ tawdry life, but after the first few moments, there’s not one new ounce of information about the character. This protracted self-absorption does the play a tremendous disservice. “Bug” is by no means great, but it is better than the disaster it appears to be at intermission.

The entire story is set in that seedy motel room, beautifully designed by Lauren Helpern, and centers on Agnes, whose ex-husband is in jail and whose son is kidnapped.

Agnes ekes out a living as a bartender. What money she has is spent on cocaine and liquor. Her lesbian friend R.C. comes over one night with Peter, a drifter, who at first is short on words, but winds up staying. Agnes, after all, is lonely.

Agnes’ husband, Jerry, is released from jail and shows up––just long enough to punch her in the mouth. Agnes and Peter become lovers and she discovers that Peter has a mental illness. Peter’s believes that the bugs eating him are part of a vast government conspiracy to control humans. Agnes eventually becomes psychotic and delusional herself. Even the visit of a levelheaded psychiatrist does not help her.

This is not, as Letts’ “Killer Joe” was not, a play for the faint of heart, nor for those digesting a full dinner. The bloodletting and graphic violence escalate throughout the play, sometimes implausibly, such as when Peter removes one of his own teeth believing that it contains an egg sac from the aphids implanted in him. Peter also mutilates himself throughout the play, most of it happening offstage and indicated by artfully applied make up. Similarly, the psychiatrist is brutally murdered, albeit illogically. (Any competent psychiatrist would simply move to the door when a patient wields a knife.)

Ostensibly, the scene is aimed at demonstrating Peter’s confusion over whether he is a psychiatrist or an enemy agent Please. The scene exists for the sole reason of putting as much graphic violence on the stage as possible, a Letts trademark, which actually undermines the play’s integrity.

The process by which Agnes plunges from depression into psychosis is finely rendered. Ages’ proclivity for delusional behavior is never indicated, a missed opportunity for Letts, but the centerpiece of the second act is a scene between Peter and Agnes where Cochran artfully articulates the items that construct the delusional reality leading to her destruction.

For this brief moment, “Bug” becomes vital theater, lending insight into how people are manipulated to accept as truth what rational proof indicates is a lie. (WMDs anyone?) A half hour less time in getting to this point would greatly strengthen the play.

The cast does very well with the script. Cochran is astonishing in portraying Agnes as plagued with mental illness. Michael Shannon as Peter acquits himself in a role that doesn’t give him much middle ground between virtual catatonic and raving psychotic, but he does find enough honesty to make the character sympathetic. As the psychiatrist, Reed Birney underplays his scenes appropriately and dies convincingly.

Amy Landecker and Michael Cullen act the characters of R.C. and Jerry competently, though ultimately they are undeveloped characters. Were it not for one visual surprise, the Jerry character could be cut and the play would be stronger for it.

Given its violence and unfinished feeling, the play leaves an uneasy feeling. However, I was equally ambivalent about “Killer Joe,” which found a enthusiastic audiences. “Caveat emptor” is the best I can say. The good news is that there is obvious potential here for a real, gripping thriller––if they can get the bugs out.

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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