UNDER HIS SKIN: Lilly and Davis.
It’s a pity that Tracy Letts’s Bug, which Providence Black Repertory Company is staging through October 19, won’t be running on Halloween. For all its ambition to wider purpose, it’s mainly a horror story.
The tale is impressively acted, with excellent production values, so director Megan Sandberg-Zakian gets plenty of help in quickening our pulses. Yet the play itself puts all the skilled dramatics to the service of a melodrama. The stuff of a one-act is stretched into two, making the story pretty thin.
In a motel room outside Oklahoma City, Agnes (Jackie Davis) keeps getting phone calls, but the person on the other end never speaks. Her ex-husband Jerry (Raidge) has just been paroled from a stretch in prison for armed robbery, but when he shows up he insists that it wasn’t him.
A friend from work, R.C. (Marie Michaelle Saintil), has come over with a nervous guy named Peter (Cedric Lilly), who is a little too quick to say “no” when Agnes jokes that for all she knows he could be an ax-murderer.
The stage is well set for an evening of tension. Speaking of which, the set design by Maggie Pilat doesn’t just hint at a motel room, it replicates one. The steamy summer night is established by a lazy overhead fan and Agnes standing in the open doorway when things begin, smoking and getting some air. We hear traffic whizzing by and, from a radio in another room, the sad sounds of a female country singer. Atmosphere means a lot in a play like this.
No, Peter is nothing as obvious as a serial killer. But playwright Letts doesn’t develop all of this into anything nearly as interesting as his Pulitzer Prize-winning and darkly comic August: Osage County. The title of this play refers both to creepy-crawly insects and to listening devices. Letts plays with ambiguity at every point when things get sinister, offering both a relatively innocent explanation for what is happening and one involving a possible conspiracy.
Bug is well served by the play being so claustrophobic, taking place in that single, dingy room. The story was opened up in the 2006 film version, directed by William Friedkin (The Exorcist), with Ashley Judd an Agnes and Harry Connick Jr. as the ex-con ex. (Raidge, big always and menacing here, certainly makes for a more threatening Jerry.)
We know that there is something wrong emotionally with Peter, who is withdrawn to the point of being voluntarily celibate. But we can’t dismiss his fears — as they say, just because a person is paranoid doesn’t mean that people aren’t out to get him. Agnes is disturbed herself, two years ago having given up looking for her six-year-old son, who was kidnapped in a grocery store when she turned away for a few seconds. Now she spends too much time smoking crystal meth, which even without the influence of Peter is apt to loosen her grip on reality.
In the successful first act, Peter is written very interestingly as well as performed spot-on by Lilly. Peter says that he makes people uncomfortable because he picks up on things, such as that Agnes is lonely, as if that were an insightful perception. The insight here is into the mind of paranoids, as he holds onto self-respect by ration-alizing his hypersensi-tivity into a virtue. Davis strikes the right notes of wariness and vulnerability, which eases Agnes’s succumbing to Peter’s influence. Raidge makes a great ex-con, not just because of his size but because of his ability, as he has demonstrated so often at Providence Black Rep, to counterbalance his character’s anger with cool intelligence.
You should know that Bug gets a little gruesome by the end, thanks to Michael Dates’s makeup effects of gross-looking wounds.
If you’re going to see this play, you might want to stop reading here. Knowing about the final character, who comes in at the last scene, might give away more than you want to know: Bob Jaffe plays Dr. Sweet, who has been treating Peter for what he insists are the delusions of a paranoid with schizophrenic tendencies.
Bug is a literal horror story as well as a metaphorical one about a government prone to bug us with policies and practices that get under our skin. Less of that one-note reminder would have gone a long way.