A Red Orchid Theatre

Tracy Letts in Bug seems to equate human connection with infection or infestation. At the same time he suggests that people who try to make that connection–however ineptly or bizarrely–are the repositories of society’s spiritual needs and thus comparable to Christ. Balancing these two ideas, Letts implies, is a challenge not only to the playwright but to the audience. Accepting both the necessity and the destructiveness of human contact is as difficult as reconciling the central contradiction in Waiting for Godot: “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”

Letts is known for his wildly successful 1993 play Killer Joe, a stew of plots and counterplots set in a trailer park. Though some derided the piece as sensational and exploitative of poor whites, his new play makes clear that Letts isn’t interested in realistic portrayals. To criticize the characters in Killer Joe as the product of class prejudice is beside the point, just as it would be to take Ben Jonson to task for making Volpone another sleazy Italian. Volpone is not about its plot or characters but about the theme of the trickster tricked–as is Killer Joe. Letts’s gritty plays may look and sound realistic, but they’re actually allegorical. Their minutely detailed portrayals aren’t photographs but commentaries, not real but hyperreal.

Bug documents the relationship between Agnes and Peter. She’s living in a motel, hiding out from an abusive ex-husband; he’s a gulf war veteran who claims he’s been the unwilling subject of military experiments. They exchange confidences; he sleeps on her floor; he stands up to her ex-husband for her; they go to bed. It’s all very sweet, in a profane booze-and-coke kind of way.

It’s easy to get confused about what Letts is doing because his ear is so terrific, but all the naturalism is just a setup. Agnes and Peter may fall in love in the real world, but no sooner do they go to bed (making literal the connection between them) than Peter begins to detect an infestation and the action shifts to some other world, altered and hallucinatory. The more we see of fly strips and cans of Raid and bug-zapping lights and Roach Motels, the farther we are from reality.

Peter is sure that the bugs come from Them, the shadowy forces responsible for the medical experiments he underwent as well as for the world-dominating Bilderberg Conference, the planting of subcutaneous transponders to track people’s whereabouts, and all the other scary methods for connecting people against their will. By the time Peter’s suspicions have fully blossomed, Letts has alluded to several prime entries in the they’re-after-us genre, from Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 to Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle to the 1990 film Jacob’s Ladder, which shares with Bug a suspicion of the military medical establishment as well as a conflation of the paranormal and paranoia.

A Red Orchid Theatre gives this hyperreal script, featuring Letts’s patented mixture of sex, violence, humor, and ideas, the hyperkinetic production it requires. Everything works together spectacularly well, from the direction and performances to Joseph Fosco’s edgy sound design and Robert G. Smith’s set, the perfect simulacrum of a Motel 6. Dexter Bullard, who directed Killer Joe, once again interprets Letts brilliantly, making the conspiratorial mind-set almost literally infectious; certainly the play’s invisible bugs had the whole audience scratching along with the actors.

Kate Buddeke is wonderful as Agnes, silently holding the stage for the play’s first five minutes by the sheer power of concentration. Michael Shannon (who also played Peter in the show’s world premiere in London) finely balances vagueness and clarity, hysteria and reason, androgyny and sexiness. The supporting cast also give performances utterly free of vanity, embracing their characters’ warts without hesitation.

Still, the script’s competing ideas ultimately sabotage it. Does Letts mean that connections are impossible and that anyone who attempts them inevitably imagines them? Does he endorse the notion that connection equals contagion, so we’re really better off in isolated lives enlivened only by drugs and the occasional beating from an ex-husband? Are the people who think they’re infested by bugs crazy or just more aware than the rest of us?

Likewise, Letts’s Christian symbols shriek for attention, but their purpose isn’t entirely clear. Peter scratches his chest and groin bloody, giving the appearance of stigmata, and complains that bugs are eating his body and drinking his blood. Agnes’s name recalls Christ–“the lamb of God.” Her lost son’s name, Lloyd, may be a play on “Lord,” as her ex-husband’s name, Goss, is on “God.” But who’s redeemed by their suffering? No one in the play seems to benefit at all–from anything. No action short of a punch seems to have any effect whatsoever.

But problematic symbolism is an after-the-play kind of concern. More frustrating is the feeling during the last ten minutes that Bug is falling apart. Maybe Letts had so many plates spinning, so many plot lines and ideas, he lost control of them, or maybe their smashup was deliberate, but in either case the outcome is unsatisfying. A speech in which Agnes attempts to tie up all the loose ends doesn’t, yet it’s too carefully thought out to convey self-delusion.

John Houseman said of Orson Welles that, just as his successes were bigger than others’, so his flops were louder. Something similar is true of the letdown at the end of Bug. Letts takes us on a wild ride, then abruptly pulls over and tells us to walk. But what a ride it was.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Daniel Guidara.