Friday, October 17, 2008

Bug at the Black Rep

This weekend is your last opportunity to see Tracy Letts’s Bug at the Black Rep. Of the seasoning-opening plays I’ve seen this fall, Bug is the most auspicious, because it is the bloodiest, the most profane, the funniest, and the most unsettling; topping it will be a great challenge for the theater. Bug is about what happens to us when the stories we tell ourselves about out lives stop making sense: its main characters, having each come to the end of an unknotted narrative thread, begin weaving something new from whatever strands they can grasp. If this sounds theoretical and arcane, it isn’t; for Letts, reinvention is a kind of violence. The show ends with a literal bang that feels more like a figurative whimper, but it otherwise communicates a sense of displaced emergency and furtive, misspent energy with millennial zeal.

In a motel room in small-town Oklahoma, R.C. introduces her friend Agnes to Peter, a nervous, recessive intellectual. Agnes has just received word that her abusive husband Jerry has been released from prison, so when she grudgingly falls for Peter it is with the implicit and feeble hope that he can provide some protection for her. But Peter is no better for Agnes than Jerry was; his volatility—he is a paranoid Gulf War veteran who believes that aphids have been planted under his skin by Army doctors—is simply more insidious. The play is about narcotics and has the feel of a worsening trip. Forget Rodgers and Hammerstein; this is Oklahoma, OD’ed.

The performances are all terrific, especially from the male leads. Raidge plays Jerry Goss with almost painful perfection; he is a combination of horrible menace and childlike charm. And Cedric Lilly somehow make’s Peter’s concavity not a vacuum but a physical presence. It must be difficult to act out looking in, but Lilly makes us believe that something is happening there. Jackie Davis, as Agnes, is smart and sympathetic, but her southern/western accent, while not distracting in itself, is sometimes so disaffected that it becomes robotic and unemotional. Agnes spends much of the play not talking, however, and Davis, stooped and scared, carries it on her quiet shoulders.

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