Lungs by Duncan Macmillan. Directed by Aaron Posner.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Brooke Bloom and Ryan King; photo: Kevin Sprague
"You are . . . starting the conversation."
It’s a short journey from birth to death, just a wink in time; one blink of an eyelid and you’re done. In "Lungs" by Duncan Macmillan, now on stage in Pittsfield, MA at Barrington Stage Company’s St. Germain Stage, a couple live through the final throes of life - from the birth of their son onward - in less time than it takes to buy your ticket, check your seat and open your program. But that’s not the play and not what the play is about. It’s just a fact that this playwright can take you through a lifetime in just a short series of bursts of dialogue.
It is the conversation, the act of natural speech and reaction and interaction, that engrosses him and so engrosses us. His two characters, W and M, are lovers inextricably locked into the lifelong battles that rage through a relationship. When M opens an important conversation while they wait on the checkout line at Ikea, the prefab furniture outlet, W is aghast. For one thing it is a conversation that she wants to have happen, but not on any terms other than her own. For another, it is a seemingly unattainable topic, especially in a role reversal atmosphere. Additionally she has had her known responses to the subject matter ready as arguments but cannot use them in this relationship because she has lost her advantage in this conversation.
W is a most intriguing and unlikeable character. She is mean-spirited, hard-bitten, intolerant, afraid of her feelings, full of odd beliefs and understandings of the bigger bites of life. She talks incessantly, almost as if talking will save her from listening and thereby hearing what she has wanted to hear but can’t abide knowing has been said.
M is sweet, well-meaning, devoted, loving and almost as hard to bear as W. He bares his soul, admits his wrongs, his lusts, his mistakes as easily as he confesses his love. He listens as much as he talks and he hears what he wants to hear by demanding to hear W say it. These two have a dynamic that makes me think, just a bit, of Scarlett O’Hara (whom I could never abide) and Rhett Butler in "Gone With the Wind." They cannot help but be a couple and yet they really shouldn’t be in one another’s lives. Rhett’s departure is the only step missing in this play for M can never really be without W. This 21st century Adam and Eve can conceive anything except another exit from their proverbial Eden.
That said, this is one of the most fascinating plays I’ve seen in many years. Overlapping dialogue, with sentences that ring of "Yes, No! I can’t. I will." smack the listener while compelling the characters into a new flight of contemplative thinking out loud. The problems portrayed in their relationship are not just their own, but are societal in a great big way. They are minority figures in a world of majority rule. They yearn to plant forests of new trees just to shake the imbalance of the world’s new structure. They desire completion in a land of no way out and no way in. It takes them one hour and thirty eight minutes (in one act) to live another person’s lifetime, from concept to loss of life, with scenes that begin and end and combine and blend, and crash into one another with the force of life. M and W are repellant and attractive, alluring and dismissive. They are devils and angels as needed.
The two actors who bring W and M alive are themselves forces of nature. How they get the play right should be thrilling to the playwright. Brooke Bloom is W and Ryan King is M. King has a face that clearly some woman must be in love with for he shines brightly in every attempt at a love scene in this play. He literarily lights up the stage when he plays with the more affectionate lines in the play: "I need you to give me some clues here as to what you need because honestly I feel like you’re standing behind a glass wall just this sheet of glass and I can’t reach you" he says to W as she withholds herself once again. King makes lines like these speak with eloquent poignance and almost dignity. His voice, hands, body language and that face are wracked with honest pain, fear of loss, loads of love.
When Bloom reacts to his earnest applications of language and emotion it is usually with a stagnating abruptness: "I’m sad. I’ve been really sad and I don’t know if that’s ever going to go away completely. I’m sorry I haven’t been able to tell you what I’ve needed. I don’t know what I needed" she says to him a bit later in the play. Bloom registers little emotion in lines like these, but she knows how to convey what lies beneath the line without exposing too much of what floats above it. It is a tour-de-force performance that you just have to admire even as you begin to loath the character she portrays.
The overwhelming amount of talent on the stage, as well as the talent behind the computer screen or typewriter, is compounded by the exquisite vision of the director. Aaron Posner takes this couple through a physical journey in time and space that few would undertake willingly in real life. He creates space without props, without a set and with only the sparest of bright white light which helps to expose the underpinnings of the relationship that binds W and M. He has found the right method to convey the passage of time and even on those few occasions when the adjustment in time is jarring in the script Posner pulls us into the next scene without making us too uncomfortable with the jump. Nothing faked here. Everything is imagined. There’s a wonderful difference and he and his actors make that work.
"Lungs" is a wonderful title for a play with two characters who never cease to speak. Lungs is what they need to maintain all of the forces that co-create the world of M and W. Eden, here, is barren and painful and not a garden at all. Eden is Hell and Heaven combined and W and M are just different ends of the snake.
Lungs plays on the St. Germain Stage at Barrington Stage Company’s Sydelle and Lee Blatt Performing Art Center, located at 36 Linden Street in Pittsfield, MA through June 10. For information and tickets call the box office at 413-236-8888.