At The SF Playhouse through June 14
Susi Damilano is Agnes and Gabriel Marin is Peter in Tracy Letts’ Bug at the SF Playhouse. Photos by Zabrina Tipton.
It sure is fun to watch an audience squirm. It’s even more fun to be part of that squirming audience.
Tracy Letts’ Bug, now at the SF Playhouse’s intimate, creepy-crawly theater space, has some juicy moments that make the audience cringe collectively. What else do you do when a probably crazy man attempts to extract one of his own molars with a pair of pliers? You squirm. You cringe. You have a good time – if horror-type thrills are your idea of a good time.
When it comes right down to it, Letts’ Bug, which has been a hit in London and off-Broadway, is a mix of paranoid sci-fi thriller from the 1950s and 1970s white-trash B movie. The fact that Letts is a skillful enough writer to make it all seem much more important means the work seems somehow more important than it actually is, and that’s a good trick. Bug is more fun than Letts’ trashy Killer Joe, which the Bay Area saw when Marin Theatre Company transferred its successful production to San Francisco. And it’s probably not as good as August: Osage County, the Broadway drama that just won Letts a Pulitzer Prize.
In Bug, Letts is dealing with lonely people and a whopper of a conspiracy theory, which makes them both feel a whole lot less lonely. Agnes (Susi Damilano) lives in a skeezy Oklahoma hotel room. She’s terrified her ex-husband, Jerry (John Flanagan) will get out of jail and come back to terrorize her some more. One night, while killing the pain with her friend R.C. (Zehra Berkman) and several lines of coke and a few puffs off the ol’ pipe, Agnes meets Peter (Gabriel Marin), a shy, intelligent drifter who needs a place to stay for the night.
You don’t have to ask Agnes twice. Just make her a cocktail – vodka and Coke – and you’re in. It won’t take long to learn Agnes’ biggest sorrow: her 6-year-old son disappeared from the grocery store about 10 years ago. Life just hasn’t been the same since. While Steve Wonder’s “Superstitious” plays on the radio, Agnes and Peter waltz through their strange courtship ritual. Agnes bares her soul and Peter theorizes about how none of us is ever really safe because of the chemicals, the technology and the information out there being generated by people and their machines.
Ah, the wondrous smell of romance and paranoia. Such a heady combination.
The titular bug first appears in the form of a chirping cricket, which actually turns out to be a faulty smoke alarm, which turns out to be more radioactive than plutonium (funny how you don’t read about that on the smoke alarm box). Then, one amorous evening, Peter awakes to find bug bites on his arm. He discovers aphids – he calls them plant lice – in the bed and the bug adventure really begins.
Peter sucks Agnes into his buggy world, a horrific place where soldiers are experimented on by demented doctors in the hope of creating bio chips to mark every human being since 1982. Or something like that. Peter, it turns out, is on the run and can’t let the bad people find him. They’re the ones that infested him with bugs. And Agnes believes every word.
Marin brings incredible intensity to his performance. When it looks like Agnes might leave him, Peter throws an incredible fit – it’s a wonder Marin doesn’t destroy Bill English’s superb hotel room set with his thrashing about. There’s also quietness in Peter – a sort of dim light of intelligence that belies all the weird stuff and makes you wish we were meeting him under less exterminating circumstances.
Damilano’s naturalness makes Agnes likable and understandable. We feel for her and watch helplessly as she gets sucked into the paranoia. There’s an incredible scene in Act 2, really the heart of the play, when Letts gives Agnes a monologue that makes a case for human faith, intelligence and gullibility as interchangeable pieces of our brain structure. Damilano sinks her teeth into the moment and makes it as powerful as it is sad.
Director Jon Tracy goes less for horror than for humor in this production. In Act 2, the tension goes slack when it should be taut, but Damilano and Marin (who appears bloody and shirtless through much of the play) somehow keep the play on track, making this a dramatic infestation you don’t mind squirming your way through.
Bug continues through June 14 at the SF Playhouse, 533 Sutter St., San Francisco. Tickets are $38. Call 415-677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org for information.