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By Robert W. Bethune
A bug is an insect. A bug is a listening device. A bug is an issue or problem that won’t go away. In Tracy Letts’ play, now in production by Who Wants Cake? Theatre at the Ringwald Theatre, the “Bug” of the title is all these things, combined with healthy doses of conspiracy theory, drug abuse, spouse abuse and just about every other kind of abuse there is. Add another good dollop of old-fashioned folie a deux, and you have an evening of theater that makes you very glad you don’t live that way.
Agnes, played with excellent intensity by Cassandra McCarthy, is one of life’s derelicts. She lives, so far as we can see, on a steady diet of alcohol and cocaine. She had a child once, or at least she seems to believe so; a son who vanished from her shopping cart in a grocery store a few years ago. She had a husband once, a thoroughly controlling and abusive man, played with excellently unvarnished repulsiveness by Dan Morrison, who can move through restraining orders and locked doors with equal ease. Whether or not she actually had a life is quite open to doubt.
She lives in a cheap, ugly hotel room, rendered with smarmy unpleasantness by set designers Joe Bailey and Dan Morrison. Lights and costumes, which have no credits, were basic at best; Joe Plambeck’s sound design was really pretty annoying.
She meets a rather mysterious man, Peter, played with spooky restraint by Jon Ager. She falls in love with him simply because he’s gentle and kind to her – qualities distinctly missing in her life. He starts seeing bugs, in the bed, on his skin, in her hair. It turns out he’s quit taking his medications. Step by step, he moves deeper and deeper into paranoid delusions and conspiracy theories, particularly focused on medical experiments by the government on people in the service.
In the closed world of this motel room, Agnes and Peter have no frame of reference other than each other, and they are drawn into a shared madness, in which she not only accepts his paranoid ideas, but develops them beyond what he is capable of. Finally an intervention arrives from the outside world, but too late. The play moves toward a savage conclusion.
The director, Plambeck, wisely does not try to make more of the play than it is. There are no broader themes here. The interest of the piece is like the interest of a horror story by H. P. Lovecraft: It lies entirely within the ever-contracting, increasingly nightmarish world of the story and characters, not in any broader significance. It’s a bit derivative; the basic concept resembles “No Exit”; the lost child resembles “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”; the basic situation resembles “The Woolgatherer”; the ending resembles “The Fall of the House of Usher.” The playwright, Letts, manages to mould those pieces together fairly smoothly.
There’s quite a bit of nudity, all done perfectly naturally, but I probably wouldn’t advise you take the kiddies. Adults up for this sort of story will enjoy it.
(FOR “REVIEW BOX”)
Who Wants Cake? Theatre at The Ringwald Theatre, 22742 Woodward Ave., Ferndale. Fri.-Mon., through March 10. Tickets: $10-$20. Contains nudity. For information: 248-556-8581 or http://www.whowantscaketheatre.com.