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Brilliantly Conceived

by James Yeara on May 29, 2012

By Duncan Macmillan, directed by Aaron Posner Barrington Stage Company, Sydelle and Lee Blatt Performing Arts Center, Pittsfield, Mass., through June 10

King and Bloom in LUNGS. Photo by Kevin Sprague


No. 1: Intermission. No. 2: See this. No. 3: Extend the run.

No. 1 is a one-word suggestion to playwright Duncan Macmillan; No. 2 is a two-word recommendation for anyone who likes theater; No. 3 is three words of advice for BSC’s management.

Those six words sum up what’s wrong, what’s right and how great is Lungs, the first offering on the new St. Germain Stage at the Sydelle and Lee Blatt Performing Arts Center. Having a legitimate “regional premiere” at Barrington Stage Company, this 2011 two-character play follows two GenXers through the trials and tribulations of conception—to conceive, or not to conceive, that is the question—with all the twists, turns, and near-penetration a sperm encounters connecting with an ovum. It makes for an entertaining hour-and-a-half play that is stretched into 105 minutes sans intermission.

Lungs was “written to be performed on a bare stage. There is no scenery, no furniture, no props, and no mime,” as playwright Macmillan wrote. BSC scenic designer Luciana Stecconi has placed three sky-blue walls surrounding a wooden raised platform stained pale sky blue with a similarly pale sky-blue-stained wood wall forming a right angle with the raised platform. Four white diffusion screens spread their glow from each corner of the stage. The effect is oddly Shaker-like as “W” (Brooke Bloom) and “M” (Ryan King) enter from behind the upstage wood wall and occupy the stage for 105 minutes.

It’ll become a cliché to call Lungs “Pinter-esque.” W and M initially pause frequently and wait to be cut off by each other, which contribute to the running time and the herky-jerky, push-me-wait-for-you rhythm of discussions to copulate with the intention of conception. Lungs has more in common with Edward Albee’s Three Women (which had its American debut inWoodstock). Both works play with time and character, with the shifts in rhythm (once Bloom and King get their W and M on) shaping characters and their relationships. Both plays have a fluid sense of time and place, and feature scenes shifting with just a word; characters tumble into monologues or tirades or confessions or pleas or laughter or sex. Both plays move into the uncomfortable place where violence and sex do that creepy dance folks don’t want to like watching. Both plays generate laughter and tears in their characters and audiences. Macmillan has a fine ear for the poetry of prose edited in conversations.

And the conversations Bloom’s W has with King’s M rock and punch and whine and stop dead. Bloom makes the initial vocalization of the word “baby” sound every bit as foreign and vaguely disgusting as a woman on the verge of acquiring her Ph.D. might sound. “It’s like you punched me in the face and you asked me to do a math problem,” she whines to M; “My career, my studies, my life” she says in full cliché mode. Bloom finds as many different syllables, rhythms, and combinations of stresses that can be found in saying “fucking enormous” repeatedly that she makes the clichéd “She could make reading the phone book interesting” praise seem not clichéd. When she concludes with “If you really cared about the planet . . . you’d kill yourself,” I couldn’t help but feel M‘s reaction in my chest.

King does magnificent acting waiting out W’s tirades and philosophical, self-involved gymnastics, playing out the conflicting desires, loves, and rages love creates when the beloved’s narcissism clashes with your own. “Plenty of musicians have children,” he interjects when the dialectic turns towards the practicalities of paying for the post-conception infant; “plenty of successful musicians have children” she retorts with a ninja surgeon’s knowledge of where to plunge the knife to cause the most pain. Later, when he deadpans, “Is this still the hormones, or are you just being nasty?” more than a few smiles spread across the audience.

But the edges that cut are band-aided over with some surprising lines that, in context of the 105 minutes without intermission, create more than infrequent laughter: “You’re overthinking this,” Bloom’s W states with a Herculean effort to keep in character as the audience explodes in a laugh that has been building. “I want bacon and laundry detergent,” she demands four months post-conception, which only M‘s perfectly timed, “You can have bacon” tops in laughter.

Bloom and King eventually will find the rhythm needed to make the dialogue seem less Pinter pregnant pauses and more Macmillan merrymaking mayhem.

Lungs is a play that with just two actors, some sky-blue washed wood, a few surprises, and a coda that explains their lives, the universe, and everything, brings an ache to the heart, and tears to be wiped away in the darkness. It’s early in the summer season, but BSC should extend Lungs’ run. Anyone who’s ever had or has ever been a baby should see Lungs.

And if Macmillan had an ounce of compassion he’d add an intermission; I’ve got the perfect spot for it.