If getting trapped inside somebody's else drug-fueled, paranoiac nightmare is your idea of an edifying experience, then by all means, "Bug" is just the critter for you. Theatergoers with less exotic tastes may find that two-plus hours of Tracy Letts' macabre psychological thriller is an endurance test, despite a superb cast.

If getting trapped inside somebody’s else drug-fueled, paranoiac nightmare is your idea of an edifying experience, then by all means, “Bug” is just the critter for you. Theatergoers with less exotic tastes may find that two-plus hours of Tracy Letts’ macabre psychological thriller is an endurance test, despite a criminally good production from director Dexter Bullard and his superb cast.

Letts’ trailer-trash-Gothic play “Killer Joe” was an Off Broadway hit several seasons ago, although it seemed to me a rancid slice of pseudo-Sam Shepard, minus that playwright’s aching soulfulness. “Bug” is actually a more skillful and accomplished piece of writing — which isn’t to suggest it’s much in the way of fun, unless your idea of a good time is watching boys pull the legs off flies, or Mel Gibson put Christ through his paces in his controversial cinematic flay-o-rama.

The play’s beleaguered heroine is Agnes White (Shannon Cochran), a standard specimen of the White Trash family found in the usual lair of this species, a tacky motel room generously stocked with the usual forms of sustenance: booze and cigarettes. In the play’s languid opening minutes, Agnes wanders the room in a state of antsy unease, answering a persistently ringing phone. She takes the silence at the other end to be the threatening sound of her ex-husband’s anger. He’s just out of prison, and Agnes is desperately hoping he’ll leave her alone.

Eventually Agnes’ lesbian biker friend R.C. (Amy Landecker) comes over to party (cocaine is the drug of choice), bringing along a fellow she met at a bar. Peter (Michael Shannon) is a lanky, laconic type who can’t seem to look anybody in the eye. He takes an instant shine to Agnes, and when she discovers he hasn’t got a place to stay, she lets him sleep on the floor, confessing she tends to “get scared at night.”

A love affair develops as Agnes gradually draws out the mousy Peter — who appears to be the antithesis of Agnes’ bullying, violent ex, Goss (Michael Cullen). Shannon’s unsettling performance — in which a nearly catatonic lack of affect is mixed with hints of submerged sensitivity and intellect — smartly keeps us guessing about what’s going on in this character’s head. Peter’s definitely a little odd, though. He casually lets slip spooky little details, like the statement he “picks up on things” and has a suspicious fear of machines.

These ominous hints of psychological disturbance resonate loudly in the blank spaces of Letts’ writing. The playwright slowly weaves an eerie spell, allowing a sense of impending doom to congeal in the stale air of the hotel room.

The production’s excellent sound design, by Tyler Micoleau, enhances this accumulating sense of unease: The cycling on and off of the room’s air conditioner begins to take on uncannily disturbing significance, and the sudden eruption of a chirping sound has us on the edge of our seats.

Bullard’s paint-drying pacing is so perfectly orchestrated that it has the paradoxical effect of stoking suspense: The dramatic void of the play’s first act is a black hole into which we sense something terrible is to be drawn.

Most crucial to the play’s effectiveness is Cochran’s nuanced, affecting performance as Agnes. The actress finds a surprising variety of colors in Agnes’ flat Midwestern accent and minimal conversational skills and creates a sympathetic portrait of a woman worn raw by anxiety and fear. (It seems a blessing that Amanda Plummer, who was announced for the role, left the production.)

Agnes’ life has been marked not just by abuse but by tragedy — her little boy disappeared one day 10 years ago. Her fearful worldview all too conveniently finds an echo in Peter’s generalized sense of existence as dangerous terrain. “You’re never really safe. One time, maybe a long time ago, people were safe, but that’s all over,” Peter says, and the bruised Agnes has been primed by years of misfortune to believe it.

The disastrous consequences of Agnes’ susceptibility are revealed with lurid relish in the play’s violent second act. It’s here that admiration for Letts’ skilled delineation of character and milieu must give way to dismay at the uses to which they are put. Having spent the first act humanizing his characters, Letts spends the second dehumanizing them, manipulating their behavior to pursue sensational dramatic ends — even using Agnes’ descent into a maelstrom of paranoia as fodder for morbid comedy.

“Bug” essentially presents a woman’s violent destruction as entertainment. Nothing new there, of course, and it could be argued that “A Streetcar Named Desire,” considered by some to be a lurid shocker in its day, does much the same thing. But Tennessee Williams brought out the deeper layers of meaning in Blanche DuBois’ decline, infusing her doom with poetic and spiritual dimensions that amplified the play’s power and meaning.

Despite the glints of real humanity displayed in the play’s early scenes, Letts’ approach is closer to that of a Hollywood hack: He’s content to exploit Agnes’ downfall for grisly thrills, and laughter tinged with malice.

Bug

Barrow Street Theater; 199 seats; $50

Production

A Scott Morfee, Amy Danis and Mark Johannes presentation, in association with Planetearth Partners, of a play in two acts by Tracy Letts. Directed by Dexter Bullard.

Creative

Set, Lauren Helpern; costumes, Kim Gill; lighting, Tyler Micoleau; sound, Brian Ronan; fight director, J. David Brimmer; production stage manager, Richard A. Hodge. Opened Feb. 29, 2004. Reviewed Feb. 27. Running time: 2 HOURS, 20 MIN.

Cast

Agnes White - Shannon Cochran R.C. - Amy Landecker Peter Evans - Michael Shannon Jerry Goss - Michael Cullen Dr. Sweet - Reed Birney
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