You've heard of theater in the round? Lungs is theater in the raw. Popular among adventurous, budget-conscious regional theaters, Duncan Macmillan's renegade dramedy features just two people on a bare stage, acting for 90 minutes. No set, no props, no pantomiming, no costume changes, no sound cues, no breaks... no theatrical crutches. The actors are fully clothed but emotionally naked. It makes Our Town look like Joseph & the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.
The characters are credited simply as "M" and "W," played in the Arts Garage's Southeastern premiere by Cliff Burgess and Betsy Graver. The subject of the play is also the first two words spoken in the text: "a baby." A childless millennial couple is standing in the checkout line at IKEA — as with all the sets, you'll have to use your imagination — when Man broaches the topic, the elephant in many relationships' rooms. This sets off an emotional back-and-forth as Woman tries to evade the conversation, albeit in a flailing, floundering manner of half-thoughts and interruptions, while still having it. Macmillan respects the monumentality of the couple's conversation, granting them plenty of time — and lines — to debate the idea. Days pass, and this educated, liberal, middle-class pair — he's a struggling musician, and she's pursuing a doctorate while reading smart books on overpopulation, radiation, and food scarcity — continues to grapple with the ethical conundrums of procreation in the 21st Century, when nuclear annihilation is ever-present and natural resources are forever threatened by parents flippantly giving birth to more carbon: "I could fly to London and back every day for seven years and still not leave a carbon footprint as big as if I have a child," says Woman.
They also discuss their own morality, wondering if they're good enough people to bring a child into the world and considering the impact a baby would have on their personal, social, and sex lives — all valid concerns that should be, or have been, part of the equation for all couples. When Lungs works, which is for around two-thirds of the play, it holds an uncomfortably accurate mirror to its spectators, with Macmillan becoming something of a Gen-Y John Gray writing with the staccato punctuation of David Mamet. Man's infantile paralysis and misplaced logic and Woman's hormonal reactions and misplaced emotions all ring true and will register with plenty of self-aware chuckles and nods from the audience, for better or worse.
This production has its flaws, though, which occasionally undermine Macmillan's vision. But before getting into specifics, it's worth stressing that this simultaneously primitive and postmodern play is an especially difficult undertaking for its director and performers. The script is 77 pages of uninterrupted text, and the amount of line memorization is enormous. Graver, Burgess, and director Lou Tyrell should be applauded for even attempting something so ambitious — and for limiting their line flubs to the bare minimum. When the actors meet the show's challenges, Lungs is as riveting as Macmillan's intent, and both of them handle the tough and jolting transitions through space and time with grace. There is no stage direction in the script, yet Tyrell keeps the action fluid, his directorial hand invisible (though it must be noted that Tyrell's almost imperceptible lighting cues, employed against the playwright's wishes, provide atmospheric support.
The problem is, with no onstage bells and whistles, the actors have to be unusually exceptional, because these are warts-and-all performances. And Graver manages to capture an endearing tone for her character only occasionally. Too often, she sounds abrasive. When she's saddled with the show's longest monologue, a virtually uninterrupted 786-word ramble, the result is exasperating and labored — a monotonous babble rather than a deliriously entertaining unspooling of thoughts and feelings.
Burgess fares better, and you can sense the spark of inspiration in his eyes even when he's given nothing to say for extended stretches of the show — which is often. But he seems to be acting in a different play, resulting in a rough chemical imbalance. Graver's Woman is untethered so extremely from Burgess' perpetually grounded Man that it's a miracle they can ever get through a conversation, let alone an intimate evening or a night in the sack. Opposites attract, but these two never seem to, even when drunk on precoital pheromones. More rehearsal time probably could have gone a long way.
By the end, though, Macmillan has sunken his ship all by himself. Lungs follows a bell-curve trajectory of quality, ascending in depth and intelligence toward a perfect narrative apotheosis, the action of which I will not spoil. But after this key moment, it begins a slow and excruciating plunge of head-shaking plot twists and inelegant dialogue, with scenes that ring utterly false toward the people we've come to empathize with over the previous 60 minutes. If ever there were a modern play in desperate need of an editor, it's this one, to the extent that it begins to feel like we're watching a workshop draft prior to its inevitable trim.
These messy conclusions finally yield to a denouement that is genuinely haunting, featuring Graver's best and most low-key acting in the show. But it's too late, because even accounting for the dazzling linguistic gymnastics of its best moments, Macmillan's decisions have become, like the stage itself, empty.