X marks the spot

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The Independent Culture
If Tracy Letts's hugely successful first play, Killer Joe, was X-rated, then his second, Bug (The Gate), is an offcut X-File - but an X-File for sceptics, who recognise the persuasive power of conspiracy theories and day-to-day urban paranoia (smoke alarms create cancer, United States government scientists invented the HIV virus, "they" are watching "us") without believing them.

So, in The X-Files, when Agent Scully discovers a micro-chip in her shoulder, you take it for granted that aliens are responsible (or, at the very least, her fellow Feds). Whereas in Bug, a character's conviction that the US military have implanted in his tooth the egg sac of a genetically engineered insect is merely the ultimate confirmation for the audience that he is insane.

Agnes is a lonely woman living in an Oklahoma motel. She has a redneck husband who has just skipped jail, and a child who disappeared when her back was turned in a supermarket some 10 years earlier (has Letts read Ian McEwan's A Child in Time?). She's a mess: drinks and smokes and snorts too much. So, when the shaven-headed, sexually ambiguous, young Peter (a deliciously deadpan performance from Michael Shannon) turns up, it's no surprise that she ends up in bed with him, residual optimism overcoming habitual suspicion. Big mistake. No sooner have they slipped into a post- coital slumber, than he's crying blue murder about bugs in the bed. Before long, the ceiling is festooned with fly-papers, Peter is ranting about evil doctors experimenting upon him, and the vulnerable Agnes is sucked into sharing his paranoid delusions.

Waco. The Unabomber. The "Reverend" Jim Jones. The Oklahoma blast. This, the play seems to be saying, is how these things happen. You don't need to be mad, just an ordinary, alienated, lost soul American seeking comfort. And up to a point it works, although how much better it would be if the possibility that Peter is really telling the truth were more convincing. That's to say, if the audience were pulled into his conspiracy theory rather than observing from afar.

Add to that a first half that's a little slow at times, and a second half that never quite mines the text for its black humour (the exception being Jeff Still's mischievous cameo as a priapic, free-basing psychiatrist), and you're left with an evening of qualified pleasures.

James Saunders's Bodies is part of the Richmond Orange Tree's 25th anniversary season, which involves restaging triumphs from the past. Indeed, it even boasts an irrepressible Dinsdale Landen, repeating his acclaimed performance as the sottish headmaster pressing the necessity of neurosis to his psychologically shrink-wrapped dinner guests.

Plays don't come much more wordy than this - nor more symmetrical, with its two middle-class couples who once briefly swapped partners. Couple A (if you forgive the mathematical label) have since gone to America and had "The Therapy", which has taught them to live in the moment and "cured" them of neurosis. Couple B (including Landen) have stayed in Britain and blundered on. When they meet again, after nine years, sparks are set to fly.

Except they don't. Instead, they embark on an abstruse argument about art and the nature of a life well-lived ("a healthy person lives in a sate of benevolent egoism" and so on). Fascinating but quite undramatic -Pinter's Betrayal without the pain, Doug Lucie without the savage humour.

Still, the acting is so good that you hardly notice - in particular Landen's performance. He may look a little out of place agewise (at times you wonder whether his differences with the others are so much philosophical as generational), but he imbues Saunders's painting-by-numbers headmaster character with a desperate energy that he probably doesn't deserve.

n `Bug' is at The Gate, London W11 to 19 Oct. Booking: 0171-229 5387. `Bodies' is at the Orange Tree, Richmond to 5 Oct. Booking: 0181-940 3633