Molly Breen(Agnes) and Andy Woloszyn(Peter)

Out Front on Main’s staging of Bug, Tracy Letts’ tale of paranoia and dissolution, is uneven but worthwhile

Roach Motel

by Martin Brady

October 20, 2011Arts and Entertainment>>Theatre

Presented by Out Front on Main
Through Oct. 30 at 1511 E. Main St., Murfreesboro

The Tracy Letts era in Middle Tennessee was launched last weekend with the regional premiere of Bug at Out Front on Main in Murfreesboro. While many theatergoers await Tennessee Repertory Theatre’s highly anticipated opening of the playwright’s Superior Donuts in March, George Manus Jr.’s storefront enterprise hosts the area’s first official onstage look at a Letts work (not including play readings).

Bug is an oddity dating from 1996, early in the author’s career. Stylistically, it’s something of a cross between Sam Shepard and Lanford Wilson, with dissolute characters trapped in a seedy paranoid fantasy while helicopters hover ominously overhead.

The bugs here are presumably symbolic — they’re the pink elephants that might plague any poor devil victimized by U.S. Army experiments. That’s ex-soldier Peter’s story, as he tells it. He’s a Desert Storm vet, but now he’s taken refuge in the Oklahoma motel room of down-and-out Agnes, who subsists on vodka and cocaine. Among her other problems is her creepy and abusive ex-con boyfriend Goss, who has a tendency to arrive on her doorstep unannounced. Her lesbian friend R.C. also shows up occasionally to use the phone, and in the end a certain Dr. Sweet puts in an appearance. (Apparently the latter is a main player in the governmental lab-rat backstory and a person not to be trusted.)

The dialogue is coarse, but not the bluest you’ll come across. The drug taking is well simulated but never extreme or overly gross. There is a fair amount of nudity, mostly involving leading lady Molly Breen. According to director Manus, the script is specific about the nudity’s use, and it certainly adds to the naturalistic feel — that’s what people look like when they’re hanging out in motel rooms and don’t care what they’re wearing. The tawdriness of the whole situation is reinforced by Breen’s performance, and she exploits a certain noirish femme fatale languor to courageous effect.

Andy Woloszyn is Peter. While he provides a capable performance, the role might have been better cast, since his slight build doesn’t exactly conjure images of the rugged ex-GI type. On the other hand, Mic Rex, as the loser Goss, presents some needed physical heft, and proves successful in creating an unsettling atmosphere within an already claustrophobic one.

Manus’ direction is pretty laissez-faire, though, and despite all the earthiness before us, there are missed opportunities for more dramatic interaction. And while the chaotic, random-looking set can be excused as functional to the story — it’s a fleabag, after all — the poor lighting cannot, and that’s a significant shortcoming.

Interestingly, Manus has double-cast his show for its forthcoming second weekend, and curious onlookers will experience a cast headed up by Jessica Theiss. For the play’s third and final weekend, Manus plans to mix and match the players. (You can’t say the Murfreesboro producer-director isn’t trying to stir the artistic pot in his little piece of the world.)

The above flaws notwithstanding, Out Front’s staging of Bug is still somewhat compelling — for its daring, and for the opportunity it provides to see some of Letts’ work. If you are easily offended, or are looking for a slick theatrical production, it may not be for you. But if you prefer drama with gritty realism and dramatic tension, Bug is worth the sting.

And Nashville Scene’s Critic’s Pick:

Tracy Letts’ Bug

Thursdays-Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Continues through Oct. 31
@ Out Front on Main 1511 E. Main Street (map)
Murfreesboro Murfreesboro

Tracy Letts is a super-hot playwright. He received the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for drama for August: Osage County, and productions of his other works are catching fire regionally, including Superior Donuts, which Tennessee Repertory Theatre will mount in March. Letts writes gritty stuff, which makes this 1996 squalor-fest perfect for George W. Manus Jr.’s progressive program at the ’Boro’s Out Front on Main theater company. Made into a film that was released in 2006 — directed by William Friedkin, and starring Ashley Judd, Harry Connick Jr. and Michael Shannon — Bug’s an intense piece about an unhinged war veteran hiding from the world with a lonely, abused woman in a lowdown Oklahoma motel room. Dysfunction and violence are the order of business here, with events conspiring to spiral the play into even lower depths. There’s simulated drug use and strong language, and, per the theatrical grapevine, also the rumor of un-simulated nudity. Interestingly, director Manus has assembled two different casts. Performing Oct. 13-16 are Andy Woloszyn, Molly Breen, Tara McBay, Michael Rex and Anderson Dodd. The Oct. 20-23 cast is David Bennett, Jessica Theiss, Quiche Fletcher, Buddy R. Jones and Hudson Wilkins. The casts alternate the remaining performances.                    $10, $5 students and seniors