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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
It is what happens when Agnes' abusive ex-husband Jerry Goss (Michael Cullen) seeks her out after being let out of jail and a handsome, polite young stranger named Peter (Michael Shannon) becomes her protector and lover that serves as the foundation on which Letts builds a thriller with a comedic sci-fi twist. Director Dexter Bullard establishes the genre with an unsettling, tension-building wordless beginning. A woman stands silhouetted in the open doorway smoking. The only sound we hear is from the cars whizzing by (just one of sound designer Brian Ronan's atmospheric contributions). The phone starts to ring. The woman moves across the room unsteadily but there's apparently no one at the other end. After she hangs up and pours herself a drink the phone rings again. Again no answer. This continues with one her exasperated "Jerry" to tell us she knows and fears this telephone breather.
Bug is every bit as sleazy and violent as Killer Joe. The sci-fi element adds an extra soupçon of manic excitement, which prompts an immediate caveat: There's enough violence here to make the faint of heart turn their heads or even itch to escape -- like the man sitting in front of me who, during one particularly gory scene, scurried for the exit quick as a cockroach.
The title telescopes that the sci-fi thrills will be of the creepy-crawly variety, and only someone as naive as Agnes -- certainly not my smart CurtainUp readers -- will fail to guess within five minutes of the handsome, mannerly Peter's entrance that he is going to be the "Killer Joe" of this drama. The surprises here are less of the who done it variety than in how far he'll go and how Agnes will react.
Bug is quite rightly tagged as a comedy as well as a thriller. What could be more comic than having the intruder into a tender night of lovemaking be a bedbug. . .then, as one bug leads to another, have Agnes' room literally turns into a giant roach motel? Oddness may darken into bloodcurdling maniacal menace in act two, but there's also the giggle inducing battle of the bugs with an armory of bug sprays, old-fashioned fly traps and a child's microscope and chemistry set (all vividly evoked as Lauren Helpern's set evolves from shabby haven to horrific hell on earth).
Letts has been quoted as seeing characters like Peter as the unhealthy manifestation of healthy paranoia about powerful institutions' activities. The young Frankenstein antics in Bug could certainly prompt sober reflection on a world in which too many young men are killed and mentally as well as physically maimed -- as exemplified by Gulf War veteran Peter's delusions. That said, don't scratch that itch to look for deep meanings but just grab the the edge of your seat and indulge the guilty pleasure of following Letts do his takes on Marathon Man and Psycho, and gleefully pile incredibility upon incredibility for a final crescendo of kitschy theatricality.
Since Shannon Cochran, who originated the show in London was available, Amanda Plummer's exit from the play just a day before the first scheduled performance, hasn't turned into the disaster it might have been. Cochran is right on the mark as the drug and liquor addled love-starved Agnes. She's ably supported by Michael Shannon's baby-faced, mad Peter. Michael Cullen expertly captures the nasty husband and Amy Landecker the lesbian friend R. C. who comes to regret that she brought Peter to the motel.
Reed Birney makes a quick and violent entrance and exit. You might call his a walk-on and fall-down part. On the other hand, he doesn't have to take his clothes off, which brings me to a final caveat: Aside from the blood and gore, there's also extensive nudity -- frontal, sideways, rear. Don't bring the kids or anyone who likes clean, escape entertainment.
Mendes at the Donmar
At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2003 Movie and Video Guide
Ridiculous!The Theatrical Life & Times of Charles Ludlam
Somewhere For Me, a Biography of Richard Rodgers
The New York Times Book of Broadway: On the Aisle for the Unforgettable Plays of the Last Century
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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