Unicorn audiences might require some post-Bug treatment.

Bite Night 

Unicorn audiences might require some post-Bug treatment.

I'm probably alone in this, but I believe a high-water mark of recent American culture was the first season of Big Brother, when a Dutch producer shoved a dozen goobers into an Ikea house and gave us the best study of idiot groupthink since the Milgram experiment. These were regular folks, not the semipro hoochies typically populating this kind of trash, and the fun, at first, was in the way that watching these dullards lag about and avoid conflict felt exactly like enduring a long lunch with co-workers. But as the weeks went on, they lost it and began envisioning themselves as a family, then as celebrities, then as a society, and then -- no shit -- as examples for the rest of us. Instead of turning on each other like the jerks on Survivor, they refused to vote each other out. They wouldn't talk badly about one another. Their plan to forgo any prize money and walk off the show en masse was described, by duck-faced Josh, as "the biggest statement any group of humans could ever make."

I thought of Josh during Bug, the gets-under-your-skin drama now baffling and alarming audiences at the Unicorn. For all its grisly shocks, this show is wise about the ways people, stranded together, can convince themselves of anything.

Instead of espousing utopian nonsense, Bug's characters succumb to druggy paranoia. They live, coked-up, in a hellish motel room, captured almost too well here. The walls are dog's-teeth yellow, and the lighting seems woozy and hungover. Sound man Roger Stoddard understands that motel air conditioners exist less to cool us off than to obliterate the world outside, their cycles little dramas of existential dread. They buffer us from life and its hazards, but then they shudder to a stop, and life is louder and more frightening than before.

In the strong, silent opening, we watch Jan Rogge stumble about and pour a drink. Then the phone rings. Jesus, the show's been going 30 seconds, and our nerves are already jangled. By the time half an hour has passed, it's almost too much. Why don't you people move? I wanted to ask. Why don't any of you have a number cooked up?

Fortunately, writer Tracy Letts and director Cynthia Levin are just softening us up for act two, when things go deliriously awry, surging to a climax both shocking and inevitable.

Bug details the iffy romance between the motel room's doped-up occupant, 40-ish Agnes (Rogge, commanding even in her character's most skittish moments), and paranoid Peter (Cedric Hayman), a Gulf War vet who wipes down his soda cans before he'll take a drink. Soon after meeting, Peter is sleeping on her floor; upon graduating to her bed, he tears off the sheets and scratches himself with a coat hanger, insisting that aphids are feasting on him -- and that said aphids are spying for the government.

At first, Agnes isn't sure, but then she sees them, too. Or convinces herself that she does.

In straighter narratives, the central question usually is: Will the enduring power of the human heart allow character A to triumph over adverse circumstances? But Bug is a may-or-may-not play: The bugs may or may not be real, the leads may or may not be crazy, and you -- sitting there, working it out, hoping it all adds up -- may or may not give a rat's ass.

That I did, after some fitfulness in act one, is testament to the talent that the Unicorn has marshaled here. Rogge's Agnes moves from bleary ennui to heights of fury; along the way, her every move and reaction feels true. It's a rare pleasure to see a performance so stripped of calculation and mannerism. Hayman (who killed in Topdog/Underdog late last year) is also strong, but his part is trickier. Even if we never entirely understand his Peter we agree that this guy could exist and that this is what he'd sound like. Showboating through too infrequently is John Wilson as Agnes' abusive ex-husband, an oily charmer hailing from the place where good old boy meets son of a bitch.

Director Levin allows silences to deepen and unsettle (a relief following her slightly frantic Exonerated), and she stages violence and nudity in a pleasantly not-quite-tasteful way. Nobody's getting off on it, but it ain't demure, either.

Bug gets us wondering: Are the beliefs that Peter and Agnes talk themselves into any crazier than the delusions fueling life in the Big Brother house? Or, say, the ones that keep a marriage going?

At one point, Agnes realizes how everything that's ever gone wrong in her life can be made to fit into Peter's conspiracy theory. Even though she's shouting, she's relieved -- now, nothing is her fault. She can blame bugs. Or the government. Or, in the assheaded world of talk radio, liberals.

Perhaps it's easier to believe nonsense than it is to confront the true state of our existence. Maybe we're all believing nonsense right now. If the show had lasted any longer, I doubt I could have fought off the itching.

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