Review: Lungs at Barrington Stage Company
by Gail Burns and Larry Murray
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Larry Murray: Even your fashion choices were somewhat overshadowed by the New England premiere of Duncan Macmillan’s Lungs on the newly renamed St. Germain Stage at the Lee and Sydelle Blatt Performing Arts Center. With the dedication of the former VFW building to a new purpose it was proof that neither time nor Gail’s fashion choices ever stand still.
Gail Burns: Hey, I may have been in subtle colors but I was wearing my fluffy pink scarf! (Lesley Anne Beck didn’t believe me when I said I was gonna wear it but told her I NEVER lie on Facebook.) But somehow the word Lungs just said fluffy and pink to me, even though I knew that the play had nothing to do with the human respiratory system. It concerns a 30-something couple’s struggle to decide whether or not to become parents.
In her pre-premiere welcome, Julianne Boyd reported that the Playwright just been married the day before, now whether he did this after the arrival of his first child, as the couple in the play do, or before, I know not. But just contemplating marriage and approaching middle age makes one contemplate life, death, and your own legacy.
Larry: Macmillan insists this groundbreaking play is not at all autobiographical. In the program notes he says it was written as he was approaching 30, and unexpectedly facing the fact that he was becoming a grownup in an overwhelmingly complicated time.
Gail: And he’s at that age when all his friends are talking about babies, I suppose, so the theme of the play seems perfectly natural.
Larry: Lungs is about the way people speak, as they juggle their ways through established narratives, memes, spins, and distractions – they self-edit, they talk in shorthand, they change course mid-sentence, in short they are unpredictable. Gail, you ran Wordplay for years, is there a name for this kind of exposition?
Gail: Not that I’m aware of. Macmillan is replicating the way people actually speak, which is very different from stream of consciousness, which replicates the inner dialogue of the mind, and standard dramatic dialogue, which is a convention rather than a replication of actual thought or speech. We are used to hearing the latter on stage, but this technique is easy enough to follow because we communicate with each other this way all the time in real life.
Larry: Boyd said that director Aaron Posner approached her with the play, and she loved it. And she has a great track record in finding plays with meaty, meaningful subjects. But Lungs is different. Oh its subject is heavy, having a baby. But rather than a clash of ideas, the play is more a combination of standup comedy, interrogation and a wrestling match in which there is no referee, no clear winner.
Gail: Boyd has a knack for plays that don’t just entertain but make you think, like the clash of Sigmund Freud and C. S. Lewis in Freud’s Last Session, or the riveting tale of two polar opposites clashing over how to integrate the schools of Durham, North Carolina in The Best of Enemies. Lungs begins as the conflict over the issue of bringing a baby into a deteriorating world, but moves into much deeper human territory of sanity, values, and relationships.
Larry: You’re right, that was simply the football that got thrown around in order to explore an even deeper subject, one that seems to almost obsess many younger people, the debilitating malaise that reduces all discussions to ambivalence rather than commitment. And that is solely due to a cloudy future that makes all sorts of expectations nothing more than hazy hopes these days. The playwright hones in on how that can paralyze decisions, and make the give and take of discussion nothing more than tentative guesses. Did the two characters, M (Man – Ryan King) and W (Woman – Brooke Bloom) seem plausible to you?
Gail: Posner and his actors did a phenomenal job of making Macmillan’s self-absorbed and unlikeable characters accessible and entertaining. It really is the mark of an excellent team – actors, director and playwright – to pull that trick off. I was riveted to the stage for most of this 100 minute show and became deeply involved in the world of these two people, even though I neither liked nor agreed with them most of the time. That’s good theatre.
What do you think the playwright was trying to accomplish?
Larry: I think Macmillan shows that there are people we don’t like a lot, but somehow these terribly flawed, deeply human people still earn our understanding and love. Bloom and King totally captured their wounded characters. Hemming and hawing, beating around the bush, combined with a fear of offending the neurotic person is a recipe for disastrous relationships. Talk about stereotypes, the erratic girlfriend and the eager to please boyfriend spent most of their relationship trying to figure out what was safe to say to the other half.
But the main subject of the play was planning to have a baby and then following through. Things did not turn out all that well for the couple…or did they? How do you balance the ups and downs?
Gail: Without giving away too much of the plot, we need to say that they do suffer a miscarriage at one point, an event that leaves deep and life-long psychological scars in the women and men who have experienced it. If that is a difficult topic for you, please stay home.
Larry: As W says, the human race has been procreating for 7,500 generations without really thinking about it. And that, I think is his whole point. Children happen with little thought as to their impact on the planet. Simple as that.
Gail: As a woman, a mother, and a feminist, I had a real problem with the character of W, particularly her behavior in what I consider the “coda” of the play – the last twenty minutes or so which occurs some months/years after the miscarriage and break up and then rapidly fast forwards into the future. I recognize that she is a character in a play, not a role model, but I felt that McMillan pushed her too far into the realms of histrionics and soap opera which spoiled the whole thing for me.
As you know, Larry, I was a devoted follower of the soap “All My Children” and had ambitions at one point to write for the show. I’ve spent some time and energy analyzing what works and what doesn’t on stage and in a soap, and what the differences are. If this had been AMC and W had been Erica Kane, I would have been all over it, but the first two thirds of the play were not a soap opera and I resented Erica’s appearance so late in the game.
Larry: The set was remarkable, as it says at the top of the script: “No furniture, no scenery, no props, and no mime.” Two actors and a bare stage, with the opening set inside an Ikea store, the couple waiting in a checkout line.
Gail: Mentioning Ikea, wasn’t that just a throw-away line? Technically only the very first scene took place in Ikea.
Larry: You’re right but I took it as a metaphor, a clue to where the play was going. There is no more labyrinthine retail store in the world than an endless Ikea where nothing is direct, nothing has a clear cut beginning or end, like M and W’s conversation. With its starts and stops, dead ends and twists and turns, it was like trying to get out of an Ikea store without having to visit a hundred unwanted departments. That’s why the set was so plain, and brightly lit. As antiseptic as everything was, there was no escape. Sartre would have liked Lungs, he created a similar place in which unfortunates are trapped in No Exit.
Gail: I have never been to an Ikea or read Satre so I’ll just have to take your word for it! But I think just mentioning those two names in the same sentence, as well as mentioning the essentially bare stage and the unique dialogue style give potential ticket buyers a clear picture that Lungs is NOT your average two-characters-bickering play. It is challenging and brilliant but never boring. I would encourage people to go and experience it for themselves.
Larry: It’s certainly not your typical evening of theatre, it’s much better. While it is an off-kiler love story about two flawed but very real people I cared about by the time the play finished, the playwright has bent all the rules about how to structure and perform on stage. It is truly innovative, yet the uniqueness of its form never gets in the way of the story. Perhaps we might leave the last word to the author himself, for Macmillan says of Lungs: “The theatre is one of the last places we have left. It puts an oxygen bubble over the stage. It’s a place for real, coherent, continuous thought. Where we can encounter something unmediated by advertising or any particular agenda other than the playwrights.”
Barrington Stage Company has come up with another gem that is bravely written and startlingly structured. Lungs is a special evening of theatre that leaves its audience thinking, talking and glad they decided to go.
Barrington Stage Company presents Lungs by Duncan Macmillan, Directed by Aaron Posner, with Brooke Bloom as W and Ryan King as M. About One hour, forty minutes without intermission. St. Germain Stage of the Sydelle and Lee Blatt Performing Arts Center, Linden Street, Pittsfield, MA. May 23-June 10, 2012. barringtonstageco.org 413 236-8888 | 413 499-5446 | 413 499-5447