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Conspiracy Theory

Barbara & Scott are bugged by Bug but they're happy about much of what's going on in NYC cabaret.

By New York City
Michael Shannon and Shannon Cochran in Bug(Photo © Gabe Evans)
Michael Shannon and Shannon Cochran in Bug
(Photo © Gabe Evans)
Bug is wildly overrated. It's not a bad play, but it's getting so much attention that its modest merits are being blown way out of proportion -- and its flaws are being entirely overlooked. We think it's wonderful when a small Off-Broadway production is noticed, but when it's inaccurately praised as a theatrical masterwork, enough is enough.

The story of Bug buzzes around the character of Agnes (Shannon Cochran), a woman who's holding herself together with sheer nerve. Her ex-husband, Jerry (Michael Cullen), who used to beat her, is out of prison and will soon be smashing back into her life. Aside from her fear of Jerry, Agnes is emotionally wounded by the disappearance of her young son some 10 years earlier; he was abducted at a grocery store and never found. Living life on the edge of oblivion, Agnes is trying to survive but has no skills, no love, and no hope. At least she has a genuinely caring friend, a lesbian named R.C. (Amy Landecker).

It's R.C. who, in an attempt to cheer Agnes up, brings the mysterious stranger Peter Evans (Michael Shannon) into her life. Thoughtful, kind, even gentlemanly, Peter slowly draws Agnes out. Okay, he's a little odd, but he's good-looking and intriguing in a Christopher Walken sort of way. Agnes, needy for someone or something to cling to, clings to him.

The play's author, Tracy Letts, caught the attention of the downtown theater crowd not long ago with his hyper-noir parody Killer Joe. Now he's back with a paranoid thriller that's high on style but low on genuine content. The plot of Bug devolves as Agnes gets caught up in her new lover's delusions: Peter believes that he's been purposefully infected with bugs by the government for nefarious reasons. Or are they delusions? There are hints that Peter's dark concerns might be real rather than paranoia; the playwright wants us to consider the option, at least.

Things get interesting with the arrival of the manipulative Dr. Sweet (Reed Birney), but as the second act spirals into more madness and mayhem, the play begins to unravel. In the end, Bug is mainly a study of a woman's willingness to delude herself because her need for love is so great. But that's not what seems to be capturing everyone's attention; rather, it's the play's visceral manifestation of paranoia. Lauren Helpern's set design, Tyler Micoleau's harrowing lighting design, and particularly Brian Ronan's intense sound design are all in service to Dexter Bullard's strong direction.

The performances are spot on strong, though the plot would seem more sinister if the part of Peter Evans were played by someone who looked blander and sweeter. Cochran, who replaced Amanda Plummer as Agnes after having played the part in a London production of Bug, is fully alive in the role. Birney is wonderfully evil as the doc, Cullen is convincingly hot-tempered as Jerry, and Landecker is so good as R.C. that we'll definitely look for her in future productions. Still, somehow, it all doesn't add up to much.

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Nightlife Notes

Lynn DiMenna
Lynn DiMenna
Lynn DiMenna just finished a series of shows celebrating the release of her deservedly praised new CD, Sweet & Swing. Backed by some of the best musicians in this or any other city, she proved to have a sunny musical disposition. Her attitude was warm, her manner was inclusive, and her tunes were upbeat in more ways than one. Featuring such songs as "A Cockeyed Optimist," "I'm a Lucky So & So," and "Count Your Blessings," the show was designed to suggest the big band era with DiMenna as a charming girl singer. And it worked.

Phil Geoffrey Bond has begun a once-a-month series of dramatized and musicalized versions of short stories that he has written. On one recent evening, Bond narrated a tale that bore a striking resemblance to (take your pick) the Judy Garland story or the Liza Minnelli story. This old warhorse was given extraordinary sensitivity and pathos by Jana Robbins's soulful acting in the role of the soused, deeply vulnerable star. Put a lesser actress in the part, with a spotlight on her face for the entire show, and the whole thing have been a disaster. We suspect this series will evolve into something that stresses dialogue over monologue and that more music will be added for future productions. Bond has an interesting concept for a hybrid form of entertainment that falls somewhere between a radio play and musical theater. As he tweaks this concept, it may well turn into something quite memorable.

Finally, we stopped into one of those "cast of thousands" comedy events at Don't Tell Mama -- a spin-off of the Poole Party series -- this one hosted by Nancy Witter. Unfortunately, this particular show bordered on the painful. There were precious few funny comics; one of them was Witter herself, who got even funnier as the night wore on. A pleasant, surprising respite from the parade of bad comics was offered by cabaret journalist Peter Haas, who played the banjo and sang. Unfortunately, as soon as he left the stage, more awful "comedy" followed.

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[To contact the Siegels directly, e-mail them at siegelentertainment@msn.com.]


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