What's that noise seemingly coming from all around you? Is it a helicopter? An explosion? Or maybe a swarm of tiny flying insects? If you're at the Barrow Street Theatre watching Bug, chances are it might well be any or all of the above. But there's still one additional possibility that might be more likely still: the sound of excitement.
Author Tracy Letts knows not only how to structure a story for maximum effectiveness, but how to make the audience an active participant in the action. At the play's end, you'll probably find yourself questioning exactly what you've seen, but Letts's writing certainly makes you feel like you've seen something big, and experiencing Broadway-sized thrills in a tiny Off-Off-Broadway theater is never a bad thing.
It should be noted that those theatrical highs can't hit with full force unless the play has a strong foundation. Bug does, but a significant portion of its first act doesn't hint at the story to come later on. Letts, in implementing a series of lengthy pauses, apparently mundane situations, and a somewhat halting writing style, never quite suggests the truly intriguing and surprising play Bug eventually becomes.
Sticking with him is worth the effort, though, as he and director Dexter Bullard make it all work by focusing intensely on the characters. These include Agnes (Shannon Cochran), a woman who's holed up in a seedy motel room, apparently on the run from her threatening ex-husband Jerry (Michael Cullen); her friend R.C. (Amy Landecker); and the fairly mysterious man with a questionable past named Peter (Michael Shannon), who meets up with the two women one night.
Letts brilliantly plays into the audience's expectations of romantic triangles, domestic violence, and other conventional subjects, suggesting only near the act's completion that there's a very different story at work. That's when Peter discovers an almost microscopic insect in the bed he and Agnes are sharing and becomes obsessed with destroying it and any other bugs that may be in the room. It's not long before he finds them almost everywhere he looks.
Is Peter's hysteria over these tiny bugs stemming from the sickness he acquired during the Gulf War? Was he the subject of diabolical medical experiments? Or is Peter just suffering from paranoid delusions, inventing everything that's happening out of thin air? Letts slowly peels back the layers of story, revealing more possibilities and questions underneath, and by the time the characters come to a firm conclusion, it's no longer possible to definitively believe or disbelieve them. Peter's confusion and possible paranoia are infectious, and Bug proves the same by the time it's reached its explosive final scene.
Cochran and Shannon, who originated their roles in the London premiere of the show a few years ago, bring an appealing sense of desperation to Agnes and Peter; they both need something to believe in, and eventually find it in each other, despite the consequences of that choice. (One struggles to imagine how Amanda Plummer, who was originally announced for Agnes but departed before previews began, would have negotiated the role.) Landecker and Cullen are fine in their roles, but have fewer opportunities to make an impression. Reed Birney, as a doctor who may or may not know the truth about the bugs tormenting Agnes and Peter, fits very well into the web of mystery Cochran and Shannon weave.
Lauren Helpern's motel room set is excellent, as cramped and uninviting as it should be, and Tyler Micoleau's lights beautifully enhance the effect, especially during the scenes played in low light at night. Kim Gill's costumes are fine, though it should be noted that one scene features extensive nudity. Finally, there's Brian Ronan's sound design, which thrives on the uncertainty of what lies just beyond one's senses. His work, often loud but never inappropriately so, startles and chills right to the bone, making the Barrow Street Theatre an extension of the potentially infested motel room.
At the end of the play, we don't know appreciably more about the truth of the situation than Agnes and Peter do. The only clear thing is that Bug is a play that crackles with tension and buzzes with fun. That's really more than enough.