In Bug, a deranged veteran fights for his “freedom” against phantoms in a hermetically sealed echo chamber that he is willing to blow up for the good of mankind. As the Tea Party would have it: Either change the government or shut it down.
Bug by Tracy Letts. Directed by Jake Scaltreto. Presented by Flat Earth Theatre at The Factory Theatre, Boston, MA, through August 6.
By Bill Marx.
Flat Earth Theatre may not have had politics in mind, but the company’s production of Bug crawls in at an appropriate time. I have seen Tracy Lett’s flashy but disagreeable 1996 piece a couple of times before, but at the moment, the script sheds some light on the madness of the Tea Party, particularly its mentality of reality-challenged victimization. Lett’s central figure, Peter Evans, is an AWOL Gulf War veteran who believes that the American military and government are the axis of evil, to the point that they have inflected him with experiential “bugs,” which he spreads to others, a vision of control that includes ambitious plots to infect Americans fighting the war in Iraq as well as stage managing the Oklahoma City bombing, ending with the creation of an android army. Peter claims he is being hunted by “them,” hounded by helicopters, doctors, and electronic bugs and sees creepy crawlies everywhere, internally and externally.
Fears of contamination demand impossible purity, apocalyptic fantasies inevitably lead to bloody revenge—Peter is fighting for his “freedom” against phantoms in a hermetically sealed echo chamber that he is willing to blow up for the good of mankind. As the Tea Party would have it: Either change the government or shut it down.
The mechanics of paranoid American thinking are on display, and Letts has lots of fun kicking up the rant level, but the demented musings of a madman are not all that arresting, at least when they venture so far away from reason. There’s no question that Peter is nuts. The challenge for Letts is to examine how a normal, relatively sane person could become absorbed into Peter’s sick world—how do people become convinced that the government is demonic? Given our current impasse, and no doubt the irrational jousts to come, this is a fascinating area for the theatrical imagination to poke around in. But Letts is far too glib, too opportunistically in love with shock, to write a complex character study. Once the playwright ups the sharp object ante and the self-mutilation swings into high gear, Bug turns into a Grand Guignol horror story, and these always look faintly ridiculous on the stage, with their fake buckets of blood and ham-fisted hysteria.
In Oklahoma, Peter drifts into the sad life of Agnes, a young woman whose abusive ex-husband has just gotten out of jail after a two-year stint for armed-robbery, her weakness for drugs and alcohol driven by her guilt that her son, at the age of six, vanished, never to be found. Lonely and stuck in a dead end job, she lives in a motel room (she is permanently transient), and the pair quickly fall in love, their mutual dependencies interlocking. The proceedings, at least for the first few scenes, promise a tingly, sexual power struggle a la Strindberg and Pinter, with some Sam Shepard mixed in (Psychotics rather than Fools for Love).
But by creating such a needy Agnes, Letts makes it conveniently easy to turn her, with dispatch, into a true believer in Peter’s bizarro world. The crazy man cries out for maternal nurturing (somebody has to dig the bugs out of his back) and Agnes, though cynical on the surface, is desperate to find someone to protect because she couldn’t keep her son safe. If only Letts had given us a woman who was more capable of fending off Peter’s delusions (Pinter always gives the worm a chance to turn, at least now and again)—but that would have been a harder, more substantial play to write. And as shown by his Pulitzer Prize-winning drama August: Osage County, Letts likes to keep his slambang, dramatic demolitions on the surface.
So the focus shifts from Agnes’s absorption into cult thinking to Peter’s mounting hallucinations and whacked-out explanations about why he has to cover the windows with foil, keep out strangers, cut himself, and practically bath in bug spray. The script demands a taut and claustrophobic staging, which is probably why the material appealed to film director William Friedkin: the more deeply the spectator is caught up in a dreamlike atmosphere of dread the better. His 2006 movie version is suffocating. Flat Earth director Jake Scaltreto supplies far too lax a rhythm, more comic than menacing, and he doesn’t do much to heighten the psychological dislocation. Nate Kruback’s motel room is suitably drab, but the lighting, which has been used to carve out a womb-like cavern of light amid the growing darkness in other productions, blazes throughout here.
Scaltreto’s approach puts all the emphasis on the cast, and they are uneven. There are adequate supporting performances from Steven DeMarco as Jerry, the macho ex-hubby, and Emily Hecht as R. C., Agnes’s sensible lesbian friend. I am not sure what performer could make sense of Dr. Sweet, surely one of the dumbest, most self-destructive therapists in the history of shrinks. Tim Fairley is bland in the role.
Julie Becker’s Agnes is convincingly vulnerable and pain-drenched, but the actress pulls out far too many stops once her character goes off the deep end. James Hayward’s Peter is very disappointing—the actor is fine as the soft-spoken nebbish who draws Agnes in, a lost lamb looking for a home. But once the furies take over, the performer shakes his arms and shouts as if he was auditioning for The Exorcist. This is a role that calls for an actor who exudes a quiet intensity, a charismatic power that draws us in—he says outrageous things, but we need to be mesmerized by how he says them, lulled into trying to figure out how his mind works. The Tea Party members in Congress speak with calm determination—Isn’t it that placid self-possession that makes them so frightening?