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Robert Kropf and Kate Buddeke in Bug
(Photo © Jeff Zinn)
Somehow, the actors appearing in Tracy Letts' play Bug at the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theatre (WHAT) manage to endow their characters with some degree of three-dimensional credibility. Unfortunately, the author doesn't make much effort in that direction, perhaps on purpose. Whether or not the play is a semi-spoof -- and the unblinking intensity of the action would argue "not" -- its dialogue sounds as if it were lifted from any number of TV dramas, starting with The X-Files.

The dramatis personae don't stray much from stock: a down-on-her-luck waitress named Agnes (Kate Buddeke, who played the part in the show's 1996 American premiere production in Chicago); her lesbian biker-chick friend, R.C. (McNeely Myers); Agnes' abusive ex-con ex-husband, Goss (Gabriel Kuttner); Peter, a squirrelly young Army deserter (Robert Kropf); and a doctor (WHAT co-founder Gip Hoppe) who has come to this Oklahoma backwater to track Peter down.

The play opens with Agnes smoking in her doorway for several minutes, her back to the audience. It's a daring directorial choice by Jeff Zinn (another WHAT co-founder), who subtly sets up the conflict to come between the presumable safety of guarded solitude and the threats posed by the outside world. We soon see that Agnes -- despite her youthful get-up of cutoffs and a tank top -- has got some miles on her, as evidenced by her tragedy-stricken face and vodka-tinged voice.

R.C., a salty life force, blows through en route to a party with Peter in tow. It makes sense that Agnes would take in this quiet drifter: As Buddeke portrays her, Agnes has maternal instincts to spare -- and, before long, we learn why. It's sort of sweet when, after a chaste first night, she takes Peter into her bed, half-growling "C'mere, boy." The discovery of a stray cricket in the room would seem to augur a moment of childlike, post-coital enchantment, but Letts has other critters up his sleeve and Peter has a whole mess of conspiracy theories to incubate. It seems only natural that Agnes, having already accepted responsibility for her brutalization at Goss's hands, would willingly enter the maze of Peter's madness.

That said, do we really need to wait until deep into Act II to hear -- in an expository passage delivered by the doctor -- that hallucinations involving infestation by insects are symptomatic of schizophrenia and/or drug-induced paranoia? Also, after a parade of obviously planted hints, the audience will have long since caught on that all is not right with Peter. Kropf plays the character as a polite, vaguely doleful cipher with some peculiar convictions -- for instance, that snorting cocaine is "not healthy" but smoking it poses no danger.

Whether the second act, which builds inexorably to Grand Guignol brutality, is effective hinges on whether you accept Peter's contention that Agnes' seedy motel room is teeming with "blood-sucking aphids." That's right, aphids -- those strictly herbivorous pests that can wreak havoc on your house plants. You'd have to be as ignorant (or lonely) as Agnes to get sucked in by this stuff. Peter is clearly buggy.

Andala Schumacher's costumes work well, and veteran designer Dan Joy's set is, as always, so convincing down to the last detail that WHAT could probably rent it out to unsuspecting tourists. All of the actors are skilled. Buddeke and Kropf deliver brave, committed performances: their emotions, as well as their anatomies, are laid bare. The miracle is that they actually make you care about these poor deluded souls even as the author manipulates them toward a gruesome denouement.

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