The Internet Theater Magazine of Reviews, Features, Annotated Listings

A CurtainUp Review

Y'know, if I was a roach, I believe I'd take the hint
---Goss, surveying the weapons of bug destruction that have accumulated in the bug infested motel room his ex-wife call home.
Michael Shannon & Shannon Cochran
Michael Shannon & Shannon Cochran (Photo: Gabe Evans)
In his new play, Bug, which just opened in the Barrow Street Theatre, formerly known as Greenwich House, Tracy Letts has once again given New Yorkers a close-up of life in the lower depths of society. The trailer trash locale of his surprise hit Killer Joe (our review) has morphed into a seedy motel room on the outskirts of Oklahoma City. The woman who calls that room home is forty-four-year-old Agnes White (Shannon Cochran), an equal opportunity substance abuser whose somewhat worn with wear good looks and nervous mannerisms mark her as a graduate of the school of hard knocks.

It is what happens when Agnes' abusive ex-husband Jerry Goss (Michael Cullen) seeks her out after being let out of jail and a handsome, polite young stranger named Peter (Michael Shannon) becomes her protector and lover that serves as the foundation on which Letts builds a thriller with a comedic sci-fi twist. Director Dexter Bullard establishes the genre with an unsettling, tension-building wordless beginning. A woman stands silhouetted in the open doorway smoking. The only sound we hear is from the cars whizzing by (just one of sound designer Brian Ronan's atmospheric contributions). The phone starts to ring. The woman moves across the room unsteadily but there's apparently no one at the other end. After she hangs up and pours herself a drink the phone rings again. Again no answer. This continues with one her exasperated "Jerry" to tell us she knows and fears this telephone breather.

Bug is every bit as sleazy and violent as Killer Joe. The sci-fi element adds an extra soupçon of manic excitement, which prompts an immediate caveat: There's enough violence here to make the faint of heart turn their heads or even itch to escape -- like the man sitting in front of me who, during one particularly gory scene, scurried for the exit quick as a cockroach.

The title telescopes that the sci-fi thrills will be of the creepy-crawly variety, and only someone as naive as Agnes -- certainly not my smart CurtainUp readers -- will fail to guess within five minutes of the handsome, mannerly Peter's entrance that he is going to be the "Killer Joe" of this drama. The surprises here are less of the who done it variety than in how far he'll go and how Agnes will react.

Bug is quite rightly tagged as a comedy as well as a thriller. What could be more comic than having the intruder into a tender night of lovemaking be a bedbug. . .then, as one bug leads to another, have Agnes' room literally turns into a giant roach motel? Oddness may darken into bloodcurdling maniacal menace in act two, but there's also the giggle inducing battle of the bugs with an armory of bug sprays, old-fashioned fly traps and a child's microscope and chemistry set (all vividly evoked as Lauren Helpern's set evolves from shabby haven to horrific hell on earth).

Letts has been quoted as seeing characters like Peter as the unhealthy manifestation of healthy paranoia about powerful institutions' activities. The young Frankenstein antics in Bug could certainly prompt sober reflection on a world in which too many young men are killed and mentally as well as physically maimed -- as exemplified by Gulf War veteran Peter's delusions. That said, don't scratch that itch to look for deep meanings but just grab the the edge of your seat and indulge the guilty pleasure of following Letts do his takes on Marathon Man and Psycho, and gleefully pile incredibility upon incredibility for a final crescendo of kitschy theatricality.

Since Shannon Cochran, who originated the show in London was available, Amanda Plummer's exit from the play just a day before the first scheduled performance, hasn't turned into the disaster it might have been. Cochran is right on the mark as the drug and liquor addled love-starved Agnes. She's ably supported by Michael Shannon's baby-faced, mad Peter. Michael Cullen expertly captures the nasty husband and Amy Landecker the lesbian friend R. C. who comes to regret that she brought Peter to the motel.

Reed Birney makes a quick and violent entrance and exit. You might call his a walk-on and fall-down part. On the other hand, he doesn't have to take his clothes off, which brings me to a final caveat: Aside from the blood and gore, there's also extensive nudity -- frontal, sideways, rear. Don't bring the kids or anyone who likes clean, escape entertainment.

Written by Tracy Letts
Directed by Dexter Bullard
Cast: Starring Shannon Cochran and Michael Shannon, with Amy Landecker and Reed Birney.
Set Design: Lauren Helpern
Costume Design: Kim Gill
Lighting Design: Tyler Micoleau
Sound Design: Brian Ronan
Props: Faye Armon
Fight Director: J. David Brimmer
Running time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, includes one intermission
Barrow Street Theatre (formerly Greenwich House), 27 Barrow Street (at 7th Avenue --1/9 to Christopher St./Sheridan Square, or A/C/E/F/V to West 4th Street) 212-239-6200 or Barrow Street box office
Previews from 2/21/04; opening 2/29/04 for open-ended run
Tuesdays - Fridays at 8 PM, Saturdays at 3 and 8 PM, and Sundays at 3 and 7:30 PM.
Tickets $40, $50 after opening.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on February 26th press performance
Last performance: 1/31/05

Mendes at the Donmar
Our Review

At This Theater Cover
At This Theater

Leonard Maltin's 2003 Movie and Video Guide
Leonard Maltin's 2003 Movie and Video Guide

Ridiculous! The Theatrical Life and Times of Charles Ludlam
Ridiculous!The Theatrical Life & Times of Charles Ludlam

Somewhere For Me, a Biography of Richard Rodgers
Somewhere For Me, a Biography of Richard Rodgers

The New York Times Book of Broadway: On the Aisle for the Unforgettable Plays of the Last Century
The New York Times Book of Broadway: On the Aisle for the Unforgettable Plays of the Last Century

metaphors dictionary cover
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
Click image to buy.
Go here for details and larger image.

The Broadway Theatre Archive


©Copyright 2004, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.
Information from this site may not be reproduced in print or online without specific permission from