At the top of the second half of Tracy Letts' 1996 play, Bug, Peter, a troubled young man who claims to have escaped from an Army hospital, squats over a microscope, scrutinizing a sample of his blood. The squalid Oklahoma motel room in which Peter conducts his chemistry experiment looks nothing like it did when Agnes, a lonely, liquor-and-coke-addled woman in her mid-40s, first invited him to stay a couple of nights previously. Silver foil and plastic sheeting mask almost every available surface including the walls, windows, and lampshades. Flypaper strips hang like extraterrestrial tendrils from the ceiling, and cans of Raid jockey for space alongside half-consumed bottles of booze on the rickety dressing table. The room may more closely resemble the set of a 1960s sci-fi flick than a cheap place to spend the night, but Peter seems completely at one with his homemade lab. Others, however, are less convinced. When Agnes' abusive ex-husband, Jerry, shows up, he echoes the audience's feelings of foreboding when he says, "Y'know, if I was a roach, I believe I'd take the hint."
This is the defining moment in Letts' skin-crawling melodrama about the human Petri dish otherwise known to us all as planet Earth. At one level, the dramatist's outlandish story about a man who believes ruthless military doctors have planted tiny insects in his body as part of some evil government plot and manages to coerce an impressionable woman into believing it makes us feel like the crew of the Enterprise stumbling upon some alien life form. We observe the characters' trailer-trash antics and outlandish conspiracy theories from a distance, as if the play were unfolding under a magnifying glass. But at another level, the passionate yet pathological relationship between the forlorn Agnes and her aphid-obsessed beau, Peter, feels anything but remote. So skillfully do the cast and crew involved in SF Playhouse's gripping production manage to engulf us in the ludicrous goings-on, that by the end of the show, the microscope appears to be trained on us.
This is a considerable achievement as Bug, which was made into a movie starring Ashley Judd two years ago, is by no means a great play. Like Letts' best-known works — 1990's psychotic thriller Killer Joe and the 2008 Pulitzer Prize–winning dysfunctional family drama August: Osage County — Bug grips us because of its author's ability, through deadpan comedy and psychologically complex characters, to imbue the most inhuman behavior with humanity. Whether leading us through a hit man's seduction of an innocent young girl in Killer Joe, or Agnes' masochistic submission to Peter's delusions in Bug, Letts tempers the violence of his stagecraft with empathy.
Yet Letts' dramas lack the metaphorical profundity and linguistic pyrotechnics of, say, the equally scum-ridden plays of Martin McDonagh. Bug, in particular, borders on the schlocky with its overdone, gory plot involving murder, self-mutilation, a double suicide, and unapologetic reliance on hackneyed tropes from classic thrillers. With the heavy breathing that greets Agnes when she picks up the phone, the seedy motel setting rife with creepy-crawlies, and the intermittent and threatening noise of helicopters circling above, Bug calls to mind Psycho, The Birds, No Country for Old Men, and countless other examples of the genre. Of course, part of our enjoyment of the play comes from recognizing these influences. But the playwright's insights don't extend far beyond this limit.
Yet for all its dependency on clichés and melodrama, Bug — at least as brought to life by director Jon Tracy for SF Playhouse — exerts a powerful effect. The production makes us itch. At one point, it even elicits screams. Along with Tracy's taut pacing, much of the credit for this skin-tingling feeling goes to the actors. In particular, Susi Damilano and Gabriel Marin inhabit the characters of Agnes and Peter so completely that we find ourselves transported to that motel room and almost feel compelled to leap onstage to help them search the bedsheets for lice.
Agnes is a weak, emotionally dependent woman, but Damilano is careful not to play her solely as a victim. Her quiet defiance of both Jerry and her lesbian friend R.C. tempers the credulous side of her nature, smoothing out her slide into madness as the drama unfolds. Marin's Peter provides a perfect counterpoint to Damilano's Agnes. Peter is a textbook basket case whose understated, shifty mannerisms recall a lineage of quietly sinister characters from Much Ado About Nothing's John the Bastard to The Usual Suspects' Keyser Soze. Yet Marin raises Peter above stock character status with his warmth and passionate beliefs. Despite the warning signs, nothing prepares us for his leap into unbridled, bloodthirsty lunacy. When the actor suddenly takes off his shirt to reveal a chest lacerated with wounds like some kind of latter-day St. Sebastian, audience responses range from sharp intakes of breath to uncomfortable laughter to yelps of fear. Though every bit as over the top as Jack Nicholson's battier moments in The Shining, the scene completely sucks us in.
Because Letts sends the one vaguely normal character in the play, R.C., packing about two-thirds of the way through, he leaves little space for sanity within the claustrophobic confines of Agnes and Peter's motel room. This has the effect of embroiling us further in the characters' madness, regardless of the absurdity of their conspiracy theories. Before long, the dull, drill-like throb of sound designer Cliff Caruther's sweeping choppers brings surveillance systems to mind, and the shattered concrete and twisted metal borders of Bill English's motel room set suggest the effects of war in general and hint at the possibility of chemical warfare in particular. The real world is knocking at the door.
SF Playhouse finds an almost Orwellian dimension in Letts' potboiler. I, for one, left the theater feeling a bit like 1984's Winston Smith, a hapless insect swimming about in a Petri dish, part of some grand and foolish experiment. Like the invasive bugs that threaten to wipe out the protagonists' lives — and, they insist, humankind in its entirety — this play gets under our skin.