I had mixed feelings going into Lungs. Directed by New York City’s Noah Brody and written by British playwright Duncan MacMillan the play has two actors — a couple — talking for almost two hours sans intermission. I feared that I would grow antsy, bored, or maybe even frustrated. Sitting on rough-hewn temporary stadium platforms were rows of white-cloth covered chairs, with the four sides encircling the stage. The Woolfe Street Playhouse’s stage is ground level with minimal props, three tree stumps, one larger than the other two. The play has no music. Dramatic effect is created by changes in the light.
The basic plotline is that a man (Will Haden) and a woman (Mary Fishburne) — they never refer to one another by name — consider having a baby. They debate the effects the baby will have on the environment, which is something they both appear to care about simply because they are young and idealistic. The woman is getting her PhD in something relating to the environment, but this aspect seems less related to the couples’ interests than to the fact that she’s home a lot, creating more time for interaction with her under-employed boyfriend.
The whole environment angle is a little forced, and misleading if you go into the play thinking it’s only about some narcissistic couple giving a damn about the benefits of procreating versus going green. This couple has so much more depth than that. They are perhaps one of the most real incarnations of modern man and woman that I have seen in any performance today.
The play is indulgent; how could it not be? Two fairly well off people with a lot of time on their hands debate having a child, referencing environmental impacts without ever mentioning that a baby could be a financial burden. They are awarded that luxury of choice. But they aren’t obnoxious. They aren’t assholes. They’re just two normal people, fighting, loving, and endlessly miscommunicating. They play has laugh-out-loud moments, most often the result of the man’s dropped jaw and the woman’s utter despair about his inability to read her mind. Every woman in the audience nodded along. I even heard several, “That’s so me!”
(Go just for the sex scene — most of these happen on the larger tree stump — in which the woman says that her boyfriend looks like he wants to “rip [her] limbs off and bury [her]”).
The play grows tedious at some points. It’s a lot of talking. But it’s so realistic that you can’t really find fault with the woman saying something, rescinding it, and then confirming it again, more loudly. You can’t blame the man for sitting up when he can’t sleep, walking around, and monologue-ing the hell out of the nature of life. You can’t grow tired of this couple, because they are you.
The play is heartbreaking. It’s heartbreaking, not in the “oh something bad happened, I’m sad” way, but in the “oh, shit, this is life,” kind of way. It is beautiful and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t leave the theater sobbing. My sister and I clutched hands, walking to our cars. I’m really glad I didn’t invite the guy I’ve been seeing.
Lungs is heavy. It’s light, at times, and reads like a snarky memoir. But then the couple says those kinds of things that you can’t take back — that make you, the innocent audience member, clench your stomach and remember the fight with your college beau in 2011.
Don’t worry, a lot of actual “stuff” happens. I won’t tell you what because their actions are empty until you see them before you.
This is the second NYC originated play to hit Woolfe Street. The first, The Transcendents, was dark, delicious, and thought-provoking. Lungs is all of those things with a whole lot more humanity thrown in (thank God because one can only handle so many drugged-out rockstars). Go see this play and then keep going. Woolfe Street is onto something good.