The title of this play by London-based author Duncan Macmillan, is both appropriate and ironic given the breathless pace of the show and the tidal swells of dialogue with which the characters -- known only as M and W -- explode in a kaleidoscopic display of raw emotion and intellectual frenzy.
Bridget Kathleen O'Leary directs The New Repertory Theatre's production of "Lungs" just as Macmillan instructs in his script: "No sets, no props, no miming." What we get is a fast-forward free-fall through the shared life of a young couple, two archetypal denizens of the First World played with intensity and spot-on accuracy by Liz Hayes and Nael Nacer. He -- "M," for "Man," we might suppose -- sparks the years'-long conversation, and a chain of events and consequence, with a simple suggestion as the couple stands in line at Ikea one day. Counter to gender stereotypes, he brings up the topic of having a child... and she ("W" for "Woman") balks.
What follows is a swiftly drawn and forward-charging tour through the contemporary mind of the progressive, smart, socially conscious adult. If they have one or more children, won't all their efforts at recycling be for naught? Won't the carbon footprint of a new human being more than counterbalance all their careful efforts to tread lightly on the environment? Even worse, isn't it likely that their progeny will grow up in a world scarred by deforestation and the chaos of climate change?
If this sounds too grim, or too Al Gore professorial, fear not. All of these larger concerns echo, resound, and percolate, gradually, to the level of the personal, where strains of angst and deeply piercing humor frolic together with a keen sense of play.
Anyone can relate to the wild, sticky skein of terrors and justifications the two spin up. Aren't M and W "good people?" Well, sure... at least, they assume that they are. But is their moral rectitude enough of a justification for adding one more person to Earth's already-enormous human burden? Should they adopt instead?
Either way, will these good people make for good parents? Will their child, in turn, be a good person? What if the primal urge to propagate their own genes has short-circuited their ability to make decisions based on reason? More to the point, should they get married -- and what will his prospective mother-in-law think?
Days flash by, and then weeks, and then years. Simply by moving from place to place in the small, square performance space, with subtle, effective changes in lighting to cue the shifts, M and W hop from setting to setting: Their car; a public restroom, where they enjoy a bout of spontaneous, energetic sex; their bedroom, where a roll in the hay turns out to be far less successful.
Slyly, the script digs deeper and deeper into their souls and psyches as time flies by. He admits that the only reason he thinks about the big picture is because she encourages him to read books about greenhouse gases and environmental science; when he gets right down to it, thinking is a chore and "sometimes I'm only my cock." She, in turn, sometimes finds his lustful urgency frightening. But only sometimes; she also finds his physical intensity erotically charged. (The joke, of course, is that he may be bigger and stronger, but she can wipe the floor with him in an argument through sheer verbal judo. He's smart enough, but she's freakin' sharp.)
Macmillan's play speaks to the near-universals of anxiety and uncertainty in our post-industrial, post-agricultural world. At the same time, his writing is insightful, fluid, and funny. The script is shapely and symmetrical; the play is bracketed by similar concerns and insights that happen along at different times, and so with slightly different casts of meaning.
Under O'Leary's direction, Nacer and Hayes master Macmillan's dense, sprawling, intricate, mile-a-minute dialogue, nailing the timing and landing square on each emotional nuance. Together, these archetypes range through a complete spectrum, from hope to terror, then to ecstasy, despair, rage, heartbreak, and finally a kind of weary comfort.
Jen Rock undertakes both scenic design and lighting. Though there are no furnishings or props, there is a kind of backdrop, a system of ductwork that resembles both the brachial tubes of a lung and the roots of a tree -- perhaps a genealogical tree, or perhaps the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, in the boughs of which M and W clamber, sometimes gracefully and sometimes with comic, painful, and all too recognizable ineptitude. Arshan Gailus provides the sound design and serves as composer; Emily Woods Hogue dressed M and W as the Everyman and Everywoman they are meant to be.
"Lungs" continues through March 10 at The New Repertory Theatre’s Black Box Theater at the Arsenal Center for the Arts, 321 Arsenal Street in Watertown.
Tickets cost $36. Students, seniors, and groups (10 or more) receive discounts. Tickets are available online at www.choicesecure03.net/mainapp/eventschedule.aspx?clientID=newrep&prod=LUNGS or from the Box Office at 617-923-8487.
Performance schedule: Thursdays at 7:30 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m.; Saturdays at 3:00 p.m.; Sundays at 2:00 p.m. There will also be a Thursday 2:00 show on Feb. 21 and a Wednesday evening show at 7:30 on Feb. 27. There will be no 3:00 p.m. show on Saturday, Feb. 23. Post-performance talkbacks will take place after the Sunday afternoon shows.
More information available online at www.newrep.org/lungs.php#more