Couples in Crisis

Two winning plays focus on relationships and compromise

Two people building a relationship, counselors have told us for years, have to compromise; each must try to look at things from the perspective of the other person.

That idea is fundamental to two plays that opened here last week, and it's what leads Neil Simon's Barefoot in the Park to its obligatory happy ending--but it's disastrous for the couple at the center of Tracy Letts' Bug, the late show in Live Theatre Workshop's Etcetera series.

Letts recently received the 2008 Pulitzer for his drama August: Osage County, the latest in a series of Letts plays wherein dysfunctional Okies pick at the already sore psyches of the people closest to them. Bug, from 2004, is a more modest, compact work, and also a weirder one. It starts out as just another lower-class comedy-drama populated by Those Who Twang, but gradually evolves into something deeper and more disturbing.

In a sleazy motel room, Agnes, a hard-drinking, coke-snorting waitress, fends off silently harassing phone calls and memories of her young son, who disappeared some years before. Her ex-husband, Jerry, is newly out on parole; he shows up briefly to reassert his authority, and when he withdraws, his place is taken by a seemingly more benign young man named Peter. Laconic and shy, Peter begins to draw Agnes into his world, which turns out to be a strange one indeed.

In the middle of the night, Peter finds in the bed he shares with Agnes a bug. Not a bedbug; that would be too ordinary. No, Peter comes to believe that this is a blood-sucking aphid, launching an assault from within. What if the multiplying aphids--which, by the way, nobody else can see--are emerging from egg sacs planted in Peter's own body by malevolent government forces? He has, after all, recently spent time in an Army hospital, perhaps as a guinea pig for some unspeakable experiment. Agnes is gradually drawn into this folie à deux, despite the efforts of her best friend, the obligatory tough lesbian (but what other kind could there be in Oklahoma?), and even of her brutal ex-husband.

Co-directors Christopher Johnson, who plays Peter, and Danielle Dryer, who plays the lesbian friend, establish an easy, ambling tempo at the beginning, but gradually develop the script into short, staccato bursts. They play down the comedy (without slighting the humor) instead emphasizing the script's creepiness and paranoia. With some lines overlapping in the style of Robert Altman, it's a trailer-trash Mulder and Scully riffling through an X-file stained with Jack Daniels and dusted with cocaine.

Johnson and Kristi Loera are terrific as the lead couple. They sit and walk with their shoulders hunched over, already beaten down before the play even begins. Johnson expertly paces the development of his character from timid and charming to full-on delusional, all the while seeming like an entirely reasonable person, no matter how nutty his theories become. Loera is equally fine, not letting her character devolve into caricature, and demonstrating how vulnerable she is to manipulation, first by her ex-husband, and then by the well-meaning Peter.

Eric Anson is very effectively cast against type as the malevolent ex (he deploys a superb scowl); Dryer is natural as Agnes' pal, and Jason Olague is good in a small role late in the play.

Be warned that this is not a production for timid hearts. There's a fair amount of blood, a little nudity and some nasty work with pliers. Like Peter's parasitic aphids, Bug is a play that gets under your skin and torments you.

The only torment involved in Barefoot in the Park is that it's a Neil Simon comedy riddled with one-liners that demonstrate little about the characters but everything about Simon's cleverness. It also relies on notions of a woman's role in marriage that were already under attack when the play was new, in the 1960s, and are utterly out of touch today; they're rather offensive, in fact, because they're not yet sufficiently buried in the past to seem quaint.

Nevertheless, it remains a very popular play, and Studio Connections' Da Vinci Players are doing it justice on the far eastside.

Newlyweds Paul and Corie are moving into their first apartment. It's a cold little hole, five exhausting flights up, but Corie loves it; Paul is less enthusiastic about the apartment and his bride's overall impulsiveness. That impulsiveness leads Corie to fix up her mother with an eccentric upstairs neighbor. The four of them go out to dinner at a bizarre restaurant and get variously drunk; the older couple disappears, and so does the freshness of young love--the newlyweds start talking about divorce.

Corie is, in every way, the heart of this play, and Samantha Cormier makes her palpitate nicely, though not with the perfect flutter Holli Henderson brought to the role at LTW four years ago. Cormier's Corie is perky and pleased to have just discovered her sexuality. As Paul, Steve Wood is cast in his usual stuffed-shirt role, but he fills it with the right balance of exasperation and good humor. Zara Benner is too young to play Corie's mom, but she does it with sensitivity; the character may seem a little batty, but she's a sensible person underneath. Chad Collins is as peculiar as necessary as the man upstairs, but he doesn't employ the accent that would bring the character more exoticism (albeit possibly phony exoticism). Benner and Collins weren't quite as fluid as Cormier and Wood on opening night, but they went well beyond the bare necessities.

Cormier's set design is very good at fitting the necessary story spaces into the theater's real space, and the best thing about the production is Robert Encila's direction; Encila gets the actors to deliver the laugh lines conversationally, not like zingers that call attention to themselves. That allows Barefoot in the Park to become not a series of jokes, but an actual story about people bumbling at their relationships.