Michael Shannon and Shannon Cochran in Bug(Photo © Gabe Evans)
Michael Shannon and Shannon Cochran in Bug
(Photo © Gabe Evans)
When is paranoia justified? In Tracy Letts's unsettling new play Bug, the playwright presents an extreme situation that borders on the ridiculous, yet he drops enough tantalizing clues, (mis)information, and potential motives for incriminating behavior to make you wonder. Letts is aided in this task by tight direction from Dexter Bullard and layered performances by a terrific cast led by Shannon Cochran and Michael Shannon.

Amanda Plummer was originally slated to star in this production but abandoned the project a week prior to opening night; Cochran, who originated the role in Bug's world premiere at London's Gate Theatre, was brought in as a more than capable replacement. She plays Agnes, a 44-year-old woman living in a cheap motel. Agnes's abusive ex-husband, Jerry (Michael Cullen), has just been released from prison. Her phone keeps ringing but all she can hear on the other end of the line is the sound of breathing; she thinks it's Jerry but she isn't certain. Her best friend, R.C. (Amy Landecker), brings over a mysterious drifter named Peter (Michael Shannon) in the hope of luring Agnes to come to a party with them; Agnes refuses to go to the party but allows Peter to stay with her.

The initial encounter between Peter and Agnes is one of the funniest and most tension-filled first meetings that I've ever seen staged. The awkwardness of the unknown stands like a wedge between them, as does a fascinated curiosity about each other that starts to affect their interaction. Shannon's soft-spoken portrayal is brilliantly understated yet accompanied by an odd facial tic that hints at the character's troubles, which are elaborated upon in the second act.

After intermission, the play shifts into high gear. Peter believes he's been subjected to military experiments that have planted bugs inside of his body. As he outlines his conspiracy theories, including everything from the Tuskegee trials to the Reverend Jim Jones to Timothy McVeigh, it seems clear that he is a deluded maniac. Or is he? (Agnes says that she can see the bugs but R.C. claims they don't exist.) Then there's the mysterious Dr. Sweet, played with creepy magnificence by Reed Birney, who seems to know much more about Agnes than he should and whose interest in Peter is questionable.

Letts keeps the plot twists coming. Just when you think you have the play figured out, he presents new information that throws everything into a different light. As the action escalates, Cochran and Shannon somehow manage to keep their portrayals completely grounded, even if the characters themselves seem to have gone off the deep end. Their performances consistently push the envelope, as in an extended scene played entirely in the nude and a sequence involving a tooth that is not for the faint of heart.

Lauren Helpern's naturalistic set perfectly captures the look of a run-down, low rent motel. Tyler Micoleau's atmospheric lighting often relies on onstage light sources such as the lamp fixtures within the hotel or a bug zapper that's brought in for the second act. Micoleau also creates a wonderful nighttime effect in which the only illumination comes from an offstage light that streams in through the motel window. Kim Gill's costumes nicely complement the personalities of the characters while Brian Ronan's sound design is often literally felt; the volume occasionally causes the seats of the Barrow Street Theatre to vibrate to the percussive beat of a helicopter's whirring blades, an ominous buzzing, an explosion, and other noises.

Bug is certainly not for everyone. As with his 1998 Off-Broadway hit Killer Joe, Letts offers an unrelenting and frank depiction of the underbelly of American life. His characters are deeply flawed and absolutely fascinating. This New York premiere captures all the idiosyncrasies within the writing and brings them to life in a compelling, thought-provoking production.