Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Philadelphia

Theatre Exile

Also see Tim's reviews of Look Mom, I'm Swell! and Go, Dog. Go!

Grace Gonglewski and Matt Saunders
Two years ago, Theatre Exile produced the regional premiere of Tracy Letts' Killer Joe, in a production that was filled with violence, nudity, and shocking images. The company's new production of Letts' follow-up play, Bug, is every bit as seedy, brutal and disturbing.

Consider that a recommendation.

As in Killer Joe, Letts' characters don't see much of a way out of their squalid surroundings, and most of the characters come to an unhappy end. But there's one crucial difference this time: In Killer Joe, the danger came from an intruder from the outside world. In Bug, the danger comes from within - and it's just itching to get out.

Agnes is living in an Oklahoma motel room littered with liquor bottles. It's been ten years since her young son disappeared. Now she's 44, working as a waitress, worn down by life (not to mention booze and cocaine), and dreading the return of her abusive ex-husband Jerry from his stint in prison. When the passive Peter comes into her life, she doesn't see him as a savior, just someone to pass the time with - or at least to smoke crack with. But Peter is soon complaining about an insect he finds in their bed - and he tears the bed apart to find it. And then he finds more bugs. And pretty soon, the motel room is infested with them. But how come only Peter and Agnes can see them? Maybe the lovers are just crazy - but if that's so, how did they get that way?

Somehow, under Matt Pfeiffer's taut direction, this improbable story becomes believable - scarily believable. When Peter performs a violent act on himself, I could see nearly all the audience members squirming in their seats. (And not just because the plastic chairs we were sitting in were so uncomfortable.)

Matt Saunders' Peter appears mild mannered at first, afraid even to tell Agnes how pretty she is. There's nothing ominous about him. But soon he is transformed - not just emotionally, but physically. It's a flashy role, and Saunders is up to the challenge, becoming more and more forceful as the heat rises. (Saunders also did the realistically squalid set design.) But the show really belongs to Grace Gonglewski, whose subtle work here is superb. She's always been a powerful performer, but her change from a pitiable victim to a delusional paranoiac is completely mesmerizing. There's also good work from Charlotte Northeast as Agnes' best friend, and from Joe Canuso as a doctor who tries too late to help Peter.

Special mention should be made of William Zielinski, whose portrayal of the beastly ex-husband couldn't be more brutal and convincing. (The versatile Zielinski, who has given great performances over the last few years in shows as diverse as Lost in Yonkers, Trumbo and Glengarry Glen Ross, notes in his program bio that he is moving to Amsterdam this spring. It's a big loss for the Philadelphia theatre community.)

"Wow, I've never seen anything like that before!" exclaimed the sixtyish woman sitting next to me after the show's explosive ending. Kudos to Theatre Exile for producing a show where every scene, right up to the last, is provocative and unexpected.

Bug runs through May 18, 2008 and is presented by Theatre Exile at Christ Church Neighborhood House, 20 North American Street, Philadelphia. Tickets are $15-$40 and are available by calling 215-922-4462 or online at

By Tracy Letts
Directed by Matt Pfeiffer
Stage Manager... Meghan Walsh
Set Designer/Graphic Designer... Matt Saunders
Lighting Designer... Paul Moffitt
Sound Designer/Composer... James Sugg
Costume Designer... Alison Roberts

Agnes White... Grace Gonglewski
R.C. (Ronnie)... Charlotte Northeast
Peter Evans... Matt Saunders
Jerry Goss... William Zielinski
Dr. Sweet... Joe Canuso

Photo: Corey Frisco

-- Tim Dunleavy

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