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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

With Memorial Day fast approaching, theatergoers looking for the theatrical equivalent of a summer beach-read should head to the Coast -- the Coast Playhouse in West Hollywood, home to the Los Angeles Premiere of Tracy Letts' hit play Bug.

Bug won the 2004 Obie award (the Off-Broadway equivalent of a Tony) but it is not an especially "serious" play. Sure, its themes involve divorce, working class struggles, and the Gulf War; but it's really a populist potboiler, more John Grisham than John Osborne.

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The plot involves a drifter named Peter who brings with him an insect infestation. This infestation develops with the same intensity as a love affair between him and the main character, Agnes. In the upcoming film version of Bug (opening next week) Agnes will be played by Ashley Judd. At the Coast, Agnes is performed by Amy Landecker, who imbues the role with a fragile humanity that one fears will be lost in the Hollywood version.

Bug is part of a trend of plays featuring on-stage bloodbaths; but at the Coast, director Scott Cummins downplays the gore. Instead, he focuses on the dingy environment and the bond between Peter and Agnes, the two elements that enable the pair's fatal delusions.

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Bug certainly works as a tight conspiracy thriller, but that's not what makes it noteworthy. Tracy Letts' play is more interesting as a portrait of an ordinary woman who's looking for something-anything-to free her from a monotony of motel rooms, restraining orders and coke binges. An honest performance like Landecker's makes Letts' play more than a slick piece of commercial theater-it allows Bug to truly get under your skin.

If the LA Premiere of Bug shows how the seediest environs can inflame true love; Paula Vogel's The Long Christmas Ride Home (also receiving its LA premiere) shows how a lack of love can make a middle class family go to seed. Vogel's 2003 play follows a family on its trip to a relative's house for Christmas dinner-including an amusing stop at the local church.

Rather than have the action unfold dramatically, Vogel uses narration more appropriate for a novel. The 1960's East Coast setting and the characters' suburban infidelities further amplifies the resemblance to fiction by John Updike or Andre Dubus.

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As with all Christmas dinners in literature, this one gets ugly and the family-nameless, of course, to stress the universality of domestic angst-storms out. The second half of the play then consists of crosscutting between the titular ride home and forward flashes 30 years where we see how this hellish holiday scars the kids for life.

This all adds up to 90 minutes of rather prosaic drama. Sure, dysfunctional families can be fun; but Vogel's treatment is so heavy handed. She seems to suggest that one bad day is entirely responsible for dooming two daughters to unhappy relationships and cursing a son to die of AIDS.

The play's gravity is lightened slightly by the fact that the three children are sometimes played by Japanese-style Bunraku puppets. The puppets are diverting, but they feel like a gimmick. A clever theatrical flourish to hide the fact that The Long Christmas Ride Home feels like staged reading of a short story.

The Long Christmas Ride Home continues through May 26 at Theatre Tribe in North Hollywood; Bug runs at the Coast Playhouse through June 3.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.


Photos: Stuart Rogers

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