Calumet Stage Productions

at Centre East Studio Theatre

Richard Strand’s The Bug in its staging at Centre East Studio Theatre has the same corporate setting, high-energy humor, and polished look as the 1992 Victory Gardens production of his Death of Zukasky. Both plays highlight the bunglings of corporate America. Both are fast and fluid, light enough to please mainstream audiences, and perfect for coworkers to attend together and have a laugh on their crazy employers. Unfortunately, both plays also lack bite–the edge that would make them more than a parade of clever, silly people who seem to exist only for our amusement.

The Bug, also directed by Strand, is funny in a formulaic way. Dennis, an assembly line worker at Jericho, Inc., in Skokie, visits the executive floor because he’s afraid the company plans to transfer him to Saint Louis. His quest turns into an inquest, however, when he lets it slip that he’s never actually seen his supervisor–it seems the man collects $46,000 annually without setting foot in the building. The interrogation that follows introduces us to three executive caricatures. Linda, the efficient assistant who thinks nothing happens unless she enters it into the computer, is indignant that something fraudulent–“a bug”–has sneaked into the system. She spreads the news to Kimberly, a stone-faced exec who won’t believe it until she checks the paper trail. David, the company president’s right-hand man, barely tolerates Dennis’s meandering story, interrupting occasionally to point a deadly sharp pencil in his face.

Dennis is the live wire who nearly destroys their corporate calm. Having also discovered a $400,000 slush fund, he fears that he’ll be fired or even killed for uncovering the company’s well-kept secrets. His frenzied attempts to extricate himself from the investigation make him into a wonderful human Ping-Pong ball, bouncing off computers and office personnel both literally and figuratively. Most of the play consists of this bouncing, which is very funny but not very deep.

For one fine moment, however, the playful banter stops and we get a glimpse of something else. When Dennis’s hysteria has reached its peak, David tells him that he’s right, there are assassins poised outside the office door. Kimberly and Linda, no longer able to determine the truth, can’t tell whether David is stringing Dennis along or not. They watch the door and start to believe in the danger themselves. Only at this quiet moment, when we half believe the gunmen exist, does Strand establish a real sense of menace. Up until this episode, and again after it passes, all the yelling adds up to little more than words without meaning.

Enjoyable though most of the play is, in the end The Bug disappoints. When the laughter dies down we’re left with caricatures that don’t really involve us. And though Strand makes an interesting point–that employees are willing cogs in the corporate machine–his message doesn’t pack much punch because his play doesn’t portray the grimness of the situation.

Calumet Stage Productions’ presentation features tight direction from Strand and excellent comedic timing from the four-person cast. As Dennis, Jason Wells charms both when he’s acting sweetly confused and when he’s laying on the sarcasm. Dressed appropriately in a mismatched Hawaiian shirt and plaid jacket, he fuels the production with a crazed energy well balanced by the three more sedate players. As David and Kimberly, Dave Kappas and Mary Lynn Strand (also the costume designer) respond to Dennis’s behavior with plastered-on faces. Though their broad facial expressions border on mugging, they do seem appropriate here–after all, they are dealing with a clownish character. Karen Hammer makes a good straight woman as Linda, and she’s deft at the occasional bit of slapstick–as when Dennis, quite innocently, gets his hand caught up her skirt.

Production designer Mark P. Radziejeski has created an incredibly slick look and feel for The Bug. The first scene opens with three computer screens casting the only light on a dark stage, giving his impeccable reproduction of an office an eerie glow. Near the end of the play a blinding light emanating from the president’s doorway hints at an evil force at work. But these are only sharp effects, and like the humor and the fine comedic acting, they can’t make up for the play’s lack of substance.