Jonathan Mares’ Production’s presentation of Tracy Letts’ “Bug” is infested with bewildering conceptual choices, stunningly amateurish technical elements and a performance style that seems to work against the strengths of its gifted actors.

And that is a shame, because it should’ve been dark fun.

Letts’ wickedly perverse play takes place in an end-of-the-world motel in Oklahoma, where waitress Agnes comes to escape from her menacing husband and her tragic history by plunging into a debauch of booze and drugs.

But the arrival of charismatic drifter Peter upends the remnants of security Agnes possesses and throws her and the troubled veteran into a roach trap of suspicion, madness and destruction.

Director Kris Shaw has transformed “Bug” into a cautionary tale of drugs, co-dependency and mental illness. The sordid fun, the creepy-crawly-chills and the spooky turn-out-the-lights nature has been replaced by a grim, heavy realism that makes the evening almost unwatchable.

We are not terrified, repulsed or compelled by the unfolding grotesquerie of Agnes and Peter. Instead, it is a world of lingering sadness where crack cocaine seems to have the same effect as heroin, violence is an inevitably tragic conclusion rather than a lurking threat and the playwright’s craftsmanship is ignored for a pretentious agenda.

And that weighty realistic approach isn’t all that real.

The violence and gore ring false. An early closed-fist punch, which should startle the viewers from their seats, is telegraphed, obviously missed and anticlimactic.

Blood packs are visible, mutilations look unpleasant not horrific, and a bit with an extracted tooth is so belabored that it fails to elicit the audience yelps so desirable from this sort of material.

All the unraveling skin is a physical manifestation of the central characters’ destabilized sanity. Therefore, not getting the special effects right raises the question of, why do “Bug” in the first place?

The set feels like an unfinished box rather than a desiccated motel. A few touches, like the tiles in the back bathroom, add a hint of the real, but for the most part Shaw’s created world is a magic trick with the sleight-of-hand visible.

Walls look like the flats they are. The untreated, uncarpeted floor is an echo chamber for clomping heels, and little outside the bed suggests the play takes place in a hotel room rather than an apartment.

Most infuriatingly, a late visual surprise is spoiled, in plain view, well before its moment of revelation.

There is no rhyme or reason to the lighting design: no basic plot creates a coherent world. Lights change in mid-scene with no seeming purpose, the practical lamps achieve minimal effect, and too often, actors seem lit from the neck down.

And the sound drones like either an aural wash or a series of blatantly obvious notes.

Justin Guidroz’s design is an ongoing loop of cars, helicopters and mechanical hums. When it absolutely has to be precise, it manages to ham-handedly execute, but the majority of the effort is ill considered if it was contemplated at all. It is a flotsam and jetsam of static underscoring where a symphony of popping, squeaking and crackling paranoia was demanded.

Nothing shocks, nothing jolts and all pleasures, the few there are, come almost entirely from Letts’ construction and the occasional flutter of a performance.

Occasional traces of what could have been are in the work of Ian Hoch and Jen Pagan as Peter and Agnes. An early courageous scene, played out nude, involves a manic search for bugs in the bed sheets sparking the viewer to the visceral voyeurism found in the text.

For an instant, it seemed the engine turned over and the show had, in earnest, begun. However, like an insect that collides with a zapper, the moment was arresting but quickly over.

Aside from those fleeting pulse signs and a live-wire turn from Andrea Watson as Agnes’ dragonfly lesbian friend, the performances, to be admired for their uniformity, seem grounded in playing endings, soaked in self-pity, and governed by a mandate of moping.

And it looks like it was all part of the plan.

“Bug” makes the skin crawl in every way but the author’s intended.

Jim Fitzmorris writes about theater. He can be reached at