Bob Frazer and Jay Clift Credit: Matt Reznek
Bob Frazer and Jay Clift
Credit: Matt Reznek

At The Shop Theatre (125 East 2nd Avenue) until March 1

Posted February 16, 2014

Oh, I get it now. Blood, guts and gore can be hilarious. I never realized that before so I’ve just stayed away from horror flicks for years.

Billed as a ‘biting psychological thriller’, BUG (which started as a play in 1996 and went on to become a 2006 film) ends up in this Hardlines’ production being ridiculously funny. What else can you do but wince and then laugh as Peter (Jay Clift) takes pliers to his teeth because he believes there is a female superbug laying eggs in one of his molars?

Written by Tracy Letts, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for August: Osage County, BUG begins so realistically it sucks you right in. Agnes (Genevieve Fleming) is a down-on-her-luck cocktail waitress driven to alcohol and substance abuse following the abduction of her little boy years ago. Her lesbian friend RC (Melissa Oei) turns up with Peter (Jay Clift) at Agnes’s shabby, bottle-strewn motel room but when RC leaves, Peter stays. There’s something ‘off’ about him (“I make people nervous”, he says) but Agnes invites him to stay anyway. He sleeps on the floor – the first night. Keeping him around doesn’t seem like a good idea but Agnes’s filters are all out of whack. And she’s a needy woman.

“Jerry, that you? Son of a bitch”, is how Agnes greets her husband Jerry, recently sprung from jail and defying a court order to stay away from her. Within minutes, he punches her in the face and then, leaning in, vicious but cool, he asks her, “Whose fault is it you just got slugged?” “Mine”, Agnes whimpers.

No surprise this production is partnered with the Battered Women’s Support Services. There’s nothing funny about men who beat up women.

Genevieve Fleming and Jay Clift Credit: Matt Reznek
Genevieve Fleming and Jay Clift
Credit: Matt Reznek

But there are surprises – big surprises – in this script. It definitely doesn’t go where you think it will go: Jerry kills Peter /Peter kills Jerry. Unfortunately, where it does go takes a huge suspension of disbelief. Maybe this thriller/horror thing works better on film because we responded differently to real people on a real stage. While I could accept most of the characters’ meltdowns and delusions, the playwright lost me on Dr. Sweet (Raphael Kepinski). Whose delusion is he? Or is he a real, crack cocaine-using psychiatrist?

However, direction by Sean Harris Oliver is tight and fast moving and, although we ended up laughing, BUG has us in its grip right to the last, gasoline-drenched scene. Glad I’m not the cleaning lady for Hardline Productions.

There are no quibbles with this fabulous cast. Fleming, beautiful in a cool and lovely Grace Kelly sort of way, really digs deep and finds Agnes, tough on the outside, smashed up on the inside. The character is so broken it seems plausible that she would come completely undone. The booze, dope and grief add up to one big messed-up woman.

Frazer, often the clean-cut, decent character (except when he was Richard III at Bard on the Beach), is downright scary in this play: volatile, brutal, nasty, reptilian.

Clift’s Peter starts off as a mildly disturbed war veteran but the damage to his mind is extensive and he’s clearly off his meds. His is an energetic, fully committed, frenetic performance with gymnastic physicality: more ape than human by the end.

It probably wasn’t the playwright’s intention to have us laughing as the curtain falls. I didn’t see the movie but in film you can go big, big, big. Here, in the tiny Shop Theatre, it’s probably better to play it smaller.

However, if you’re sending up the genre, then you need to push it right over the top. I don’t know what director Oliver intended – straight ahead or sent-up – but it was an entertaining, head-shaking night of theatre: Sam Shepard meets Tarantino, maybe.

Jay Clift and Genevieve Fleming Credit: Matt Reznek
Jay Clift and Genevieve Fleming
Credit: Matt Reznek