Tracy Letts's 'Bug' up close

June 14, 2011

Last weekend, Pulitzer-winning playwright Tracy Letts took in a show: his own Bug at tiny Redtwist Theatre. “He loved it,” says Jacqueline Grandt, who plays sleazy, tough-talking waitress Agnes. “He was very kind to all of us, the whole cast. We went out to the lobby, and he gave me a big hug. It was cool!”

Lett’s 15-year-old play, made into a film in 2006, is still very much a work for our time: though the objects of paranoia may have shifted, conspiracy theories live on. That hook, and the knife-edge balance between comic hysteria and tragic horror maintained in Redtwist’s intimate production, makes the play’s extension (through July 31) no surprise. Most of that time it plays in repertory with That Face, which also features Grandt. “I actually have never done two shows at the same time,” she says. “It’s freaking me out a little bit.”

Though the script calls for Agnes to be nude at times, Grandt wasn’t comfortable with that—and director Kimberly Senior thought the audience might be uncomfortable too, sitting just inches from the performers. Most of the tiny venue is taken up by Jack Magaw’s brilliant set, designed with Senior. “Initially Kimberly wanted only 30 people in the audience,” Grandt says. “She wanted everyone to feel enclosed and locked in. She wanted the audience right on top, so they could feel everything we feel.” It works. This production’s a pressure-cooker.

“This is probably the closest, the most intimate I’ve ever been with the audience,” says Grandt. “It’s really wonderful, because even though you are in your moments, you still feel the audience member there. Every movement you make, every eye contact you have with your fellow actor—it’s all seen. It’s almost like doing a movie because you’re so close up.” A few audience members are seated virtually onstage. “But I think they enjoy it,” Grandt says. “They wouldn’t have picked those seats if they didn’t want to be involved.”

A lot of people laughed at Bug’s crazed ending when I saw the show, and Grandt says responses vary from performance to performance. “It can be silence, it can be laughter. We actually expected uproarious laughter when the pizza guy comes, right? And the first couple nights it was dead silence. I’m like, oh no! When did I order a pizza? I mean, come on! But however the audience reacts, you have to take it in and say, ‘As long as I’m playing this truly, people are going to react how they’re going to react.’ I mean, you take out of it whatever you want, because there’s no answer in this play. No answer.”

Of her character, Grandt says: “She hasn’t had anybody treat her with an iota of respect. I’m sure the customers where she works just don’t see anybody, just a person serving them. But I love Agnes, she’s become one of my favorite roles. Some of that is to do with her compassion. So many people may think of it as ignorance or oversights, but I see it as compassion, how much she really loves Peter.”

Grandt’s character in That Face—the mother in Polly Stenham’s 2007 family drama, which Stenham wrote at age 19—is harder to like. “She’s a very disturbed woman, a divorced alcoholic, a sad character who’s 100 percent dependent on her 18-year-old son,” Grandt says. “But the play is amazingly written. The verbiage, it’s eloquent. She speaks from the heart, but it’s just horrible things.”

After eight rehearsals (previews start June 29), Grandt says, “I’m on a good path about [my character’s] past, but I haven’t gotten it all yet. And there’s a lot to get, so it’s gonna take some work. But honestly, I’ve never not liked any of my characters because I don’t think you can go into it like that. You have to somehow find the good in them, because otherwise the audience can’t find the good in them.”