Written by Duncan Macmillan, Directed by Bridget Kathleen O'Leary; Jen Rock, Scenic and Lighting Designer; Emily Woods Hogue, Costume Designer; Arshan Gailus, Sound Designer/Composer; Phill Madore, Production Stage Manager
CAST: Liz Hayes (W), Nael Nacer (M)
Performances through March 10 at New Repertory Theatre, Black Box Theater, Arsenal Center for the Arts, 321 Arsenal Street, Watertown, MA; Box Office 617-923-8487 or www.newrep.org
Until you get acclimated to the nonstop, stream of consciousness dialogue employed by the two actors in Duncan Macmillan's play Lungs, now in its Boston premiere at New Repertory Theatre in Watertown, you might find it a little hard to catch your breath. People do talk this way in real life, but we don't often experience it on the stage and it makes it challenging to grasp what "W" (Liz Hayes) and "M" (Nael Nacer) are saying to each other some of the time when their lines overlap. That might be a good thing, however, as they are among the most neurotic characters you'll encounter outside of a Woody Allen movie.
Bridget Kathleen O'Leary directs Hayes and Nacer in the virtually bare Black Box Theater, and I give kudos to the trio for their strong work in this semi-comic, but annoying play. In his stage directions, Macmillan instructs that there should not be any set or lighting design to speak of, no props, no costumes, and no miming by the actors, so Hayes and Nacer perform on a naked platform stage, dressed by Emily Woods Hogue in street clothes. O' Leary and Scenic and Lighting Designer Jen Rock did take the liberty to hang an undefined sculpture behind a sheer white curtain as a backdrop. The silver corrugated wire branches, wrapped in what looks like dryer vent material, may be seen as a symbol for the lungs' bronchioles or the limbs of a tree (the couple repeatedly speaks of planting trees to offset their carbon footprint). Varied lighting hues reflect off the silver, but it is not a distraction.
The theme that Macmillan agonizingly dissects for 80 to 85 minutes is whether or not a young couple should bring a baby into the world, taking into consideration a plethora of concerns; among them environmental, political, financial, and familial. The chief argument in favor of reproducing seems to be that W and M believe that they are good, thinking people and owe the world more spawn like them. The idea of simply wanting a child is further down the list, although W does reminisce about seeing herself as a mother since she was a little girl, acknowledging the biological imperative. For his part, M is the one who brings up the subject in the first place, somewhat humorously, in an IKEA store.
Over the course of the next 45 minutes, W and M raise every imaginable objection or scenario that potential or expectant parents could conjure, such as will we become boring, should we adopt, should we get married, you need a better job, and you need to quit smoking. Through it all, Hayes and Nacer are amazing, consistently registering spot on facial expressions and body language to convey the emotions of the moment. Many times they have to shift their reactions on a dime as Macmillan moves them to an assortment of locales; one minute they're at home, then they're at a club or the zoo or making love. Their disagreements are both universal and realistic (dissing each other's parents, for example), and both actors are extremely raw when faced with the unthinkable (but not unpredictable) watershed event.
The timing and chemistry involved to carry off Macmillan's relentless dialogue must be precise, and O'Leary has masterfully established the pace for her crack duo. Hayes and Nacer are actors who meld with the characters they are portraying, at the same time as they inject them with their passion and humanity. However, even at their best, the trio has to muddle through the last half hour of Lungs as it loses its focus and Macmillan seems to be scrambling to find a way out of the hole he dug for them. His solution is derivative of Thornton Wilder, but without the heart or credibility inherent in Our Town. Instead of hitting the fast forward button to hurtle to the end of life, a more satisfactory conclusion would be a new life filling its lungs as it experienced its first breaths.