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Theater Review: “Lungs” at Studio Theatre

A world premiere of a bare-bones production finds a startling new way to explore an age-old question

Brooke Bloom and Ryan King in Lungs. Photograph by Carol Pratt, courtesy Studio Theatre

☆☆☆ stars out of four

There are some dilemmas so common, so ubiquitous, that exploring them almost seems unfair. Like two people debating whether or not to have children, for instance. Once a foregone conclusion for a young married straight couple, the decision to procreate is now complex enough to summon up an existential crisis, where global warming, overpopulation, and the burden of educated liberal guilt tie any prospective parents up in knots of Houdini-esque proportions.

So if you go to see Lungs at Studio Theatre, like this reviewer did, and then walk into Whole Foods completely unironically afterwards to buy a grass-fed organic strip steak, like this reviewer also did, you may find yourself feeling less like a person with one of a billion individual characteristics and more like a gigantic, hopeless cliché. Particularly if you’ve ever spent time with a partner discussing one of the following: (a) whether or not to have children, (b) why the world is so totally, irrevocably messed up, or (c) whether it’s okay to spend hard-earned dollars on frivolous luxury goods rather than splashing out on a charitable donation. Such is the genius of this play , which manages to encapsulate within it almost every debate between nearly every young urban, reasonably well-to-do couple. Set on a sparse, entirely empty bleached-wood stage, and relying almost entirely on the mammoth performances of its two actors, Lungs is a relationship analyzed to the nth degree, and occasionally a scarily recognizable one at that.

Identified only as W (Brooke Bloom), and M (Ryan King), the two characters captured so resonantly by British playwright Duncan Macmillan are veritable manifestations of scarf-wearing, coffee-drinking yuppies. She’s completing a PhD; he’s a musician—the play opens as the two of them are shopping in Ikea, where M completely flummoxes W by suggesting they think about having a baby, prompting an overwhelming freakout. Bloom, as W, has the more demanding role, with almost 90 minutes of shrill, frantic monologues to herself, and to her credit, her brutal whininess never falters, whether she’s considering the carbon footprint of a baby (“10,000 tones of CO2: the weight of the Eiffel Tower”), or reproaching M for one of a million innocuous errors.

King, as M, has the tricky task of asserting a personality through a character so henpecked he’s practically pock-marked. And yet he’s believably hopeless and easy-going enough that you can understand why he’s so placidly appeasing most of the time. Less hard to understand is his attraction to W, whose moods are only matched by her inability to make a decision. And this, of course, is the ultimate point: How are two people so utterly self-absorbed and immature ever going to be able to handle the responsibility of caring for another human being? Particularly when they’re worrying about every tiny thing that they do in the process?

Macmillian has done a fascinating job creating a universe out of nothing at all, aided ably by director Aaron Posner. Without props (W’s only concession to naturalism is an over-used tissue), or scenery, or anything to help them set the scene, the actors flit between times, locations, and situations with ease. The rapid-fire plot moves with breakneck speed at times and seems to drag interminably at others. And be warned: If you’re someone with little tolerance for discussing your own feelings, it’s almost unbearable to be subjected to an hour-and-a-half of other people discussing theirs. This is brilliant, minimalist theater, even if it’s the kind of thing that may strike its target audience uncomfortably close to home at times. Does it have an overarching, take-home message? Not really, which is the only thing that could be missing. But it’s an original and striking new play from Studio, even if its characters are as clichéd as they come.

Lungs is at Studio Theatre through October 23 15. Tickets ($20) available at Studio Theatre’s Web site.

Editor’s note: Studio has extended the run of this show to October 23.