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You name it, you’ll see it in the skanky Oklahoma motel room inhabited by the sad-sack heroine of Bug: coke snorting, crack smoking, booze guzzling, wife beating, lesbian flirtation, emotional terrorism, paranoiac self-mutilation, extended nude scenes, a slasher-pic stabbing, and, oh, yes, an Act 2 climax that tries but doesn’t quite manage to fuse Wagner and Waco. All in all, it’s a deliciously sick tidbit of theater that goes blithely where most Washington offerings wouldn’t think of taking you—including way over the top. Anybody surprised that it’s at Woolly Mammoth?
Tracy Letts, author of the darkly comic trailer-trash suspenser, Killer Joe, returns with this sad, funny, unmistakably late-’90s script to his Oklahoma roots, and what he unearths from around them is Aggie (Deborah Hazlett), a honky-tonk waitress who’s still hiding from the abusive husband who went up the river on an armed-robbery beef a couple of years ago—and, to one degree or another, from the part of herself that managed to misplace their 6-year-old son in a supermarket a decade or so ago.
In the wake of these arguably life-wrecking events, Aggie has turned beyond skittish; she may talk about wanting to get out more, may mention in passing that “I used to have a party myself ever’ now and again,” but she’s become “hermitized,” in the disjointed but usually on-point assessment of her biker-dyke friend, R.C. (Kate Norris). Aggie keeps her refrigerator in the closet, her dishes in the bathroom, and her cocaine always close at hand, and the play trades to a certain extent in the consequences of her withdrawal from the real world.
But however grim and unchanging her situation—and designer Anne Gibson, with able assists from the sound and lighting artists, has made it a tired, monochrome sort of grim, indeed—Aggie appears at least to have been getting by. That stops when R.C. shows up one evening on the way to a party, bringing with her a fresh stash of coke and a quietly intense hanger-on named Peter (Eric Sutton), whose eyes speak of a kind of sadness that Aggie understands without quite thinking about it. His diffidence and vulnerability remind her, you suspect, of that missing boy, and you’re not surprised when Peter stays behind, telling R.C. he’ll catch up with her later on. (And you’re not surprised, either, when he doesn’t catch up, which is one of the play’s weaknesses; for all its plentiful oddities, the plot is strangely predictable.)
Peter proves to be as quiet and kind as he looks, especially in the wake of a bruising run-in between Aggie and her recently paroled ex (a convincingly lowlife Stephen F. Schmidt), but Peter and Aggie don’t sleep together right away; curiously enough, it’s not until after this gentle new man shows the first faint signs of instability that Aggie—maybe hoping to smooth the moment over, maybe trying to rescue him, maybe just giving in at last to her crushing loneliness—lets down that last tense barrier and lets him into her bed.
The immediate aftermath of that decision—an extended, if not exactly leisurely, nude scene, staged and acted with enormous poise—establishes Wilson Milam as a graceful director. But all his skills can’t keep the proceedings from dragging slightly in the second half—even as Peter’s slightly distracted jumpiness shades into a full-blown, intricately articulated psychosis and as Aggie follows him, first haltingly and eventually wholeheartedly, into a fevered, circling delusion having to do with bloodsucking, transmitter-equipped aphids, and a vast conspiracy involving sadistic dentists, the U.S. Army, and (naturally) a shadowy, one-world government.
If Peter mentions, for instance, that he’s escaped from a conniving psychiatrist who wants him back so the military-industrial complex’s diabolical experiments can proceed, you can be sure said shrink will turn up (in the appropriately menacing person of Brian Hemmingsen). His erstwhile patient can thus better provoke a no-escape situation that will bring the proceedings to the inevitable and necessarily explosive conclusion.
The two principals, naked once again, do flame out nicely, and it’s disturbingly amusing the way Letts and the Woolly designers have them deck their surroundings with signal-blocking tinfoil and flypaper streamers and row upon row of Roach Motels. But the long march to that last big bang is a bit of a chore—which means the audience may have stopped paying attention before Letts can get his point across.
That point, if I’m reading it right, is something about how paranoid psychosis looks, under the hood, a good bit like plain old American self-involvement, only more so: You’ve got to have a tragically skewed notion or two about your own importance, Letts is pointing out, to convince yourself that you’re the linchpin in a vast (right-wing or left-wing) conspiracy.
If that’s not exactly a revelation, it’s at least timely—or it was in the mid-’90s, when Bug was written. The author has apparently been tinkering with the play for Woolly’s U.S. premiere (at least one of Norris’ one-liners is a much funnier variation on what’s in the script), and the cast works so hard and with such craft to put it across that it just might be worth sitting through the slow parts. Just try, when your attention begins to wander, not to scratch. CP