As many of us know firsthand, there is a paper-thin wall between profound love and psychotic delusion. That barrier is wadded up and incinerated in the claustrophobic, disturbing Bug by Tracy Letts, now at The Bang and the Clatter Theatre Company. Focusing on a couple of scruffy down-and-outers in a fleabag Oklahoma motel, this play will make you itch in places that can't be scratched.
Letts' playscript was turned into a William Friedkin film that was released earlier this year. But Bug truly belongs onstage, and the Bang and Clatter folks, under the direction of Sean Derry, make it a creepy encounter indeed. Even though the two leads don't have all the chops they need to carry off a dual paranoid meltdown, they are good enough to guide this love-story-from-hell to its grisly conclusion.
Agnes, a straight waitress in a lesbian bar, is on the run from reality; her abusive ex-husband Jerry is in the slammer, and her six-year-old son disappeared from a grocery store a decade earlier. She's holed up in a roadside room where the only amenity is a smoke detector.
Aggie's easygoing, gay gal-pal R.C. (an excellent Jen Kilka) has brought over a quiet, unassuming fellow named Peter, who winds up sharing the floor and then the bed with the none-too-eager Agnes. But then the smoke alarm goes off with its incessant chirping noise (or does it?), and events begin to spiral downward at a stealthy, frightening pace.
The playwright fakes the audience out with some deft feints, as when Jerry suddenly appears at Aggie's door and wants to resume the relationship, with Aggie as his docile punching bag. Mark Mayo is completely at ease as the casually cretinous Jerry, decking Agnes with an automatic reflex that seems almost natural and thereby even more startling. But Jerry isn't the crux of the problem here — not by a long shot.
Years ago, parents put their children down for the night by cooing the old saying, "Sleep tight, and don't let the bedbugs bite." It was such a standard phrase, no one ever thought about how weird it was to plant in the minds of impressionable youngsters the idea of gnawing bugs crawling in the sheets. Well, evidently Mr. Letts pondered this, and when Peter jumps up stark naked in bed, trying to find one of those bugs, it portends a lot more than just careless laundering.
Justin Tatum, as the bright but oddly preoccupied Peter, handles his early scenes well, and his discussion with Agnes on the type of insect that might be nibbling on him is quite amusing. But Tatum doesn't take enough time within his scenes to build Peter's paranoia incrementally and believably. As a result, when things start getting out of control and he pulls his own rotten tooth to reveal a "bug" implant, the audience is left lagging behind somewhat.
As Agnes, Kellie McIvor hits all the emotional hot buttons as her character tries to numb herself with vodka and cocaine. But she doesn't convey the age or experience of a 44-year-old woman, so her lifetime of disastrous choices and tragic events doesn't resonate with much clarity. And in her defining monologue, in which she convinces herself of the rightness of her shared delusions (if that's what they are), McIvor jumps some of her own beats and doesn't plumb all the terror of her helpless plummet into a psychological abyss.
As written, the show is purposefully unbalanced — a 90-minute first act followed by a 30-minute second act — so that the audience can slowly be drawn into the sick, co-dependent love affair between Agnes and Peter, then slammed by the violent conclusion. Director Derry finds moments of quietude in the first act, but they don't succeed in building either of the main characters' personas. They only slow the production down.
However, the startling set change after intermission and the arrival of the mysterious Dr. Sweet (a properly arrogant Andrew Narten) make the last half-hour a screaming slide into mutual self-destruction. And the audience is left to decide whether a government-corporate cabal was to blame or it was just a serious overreaction to a spider bite.
In any case, the power of love and delusion, the need to believe when belief is all that can save you, is presented with sledgehammer force.