Thursday, February 28, 2013

Baby's breath

Liz Hayes and Nael Nacer take a breather.  Photo: Andrew Brilliant.

One thing is clear about Lungs.

You have to have amazing lung power to perform it.

Particularly if, like the talented Liz Hayes (above, with the equally gifted Nael Nacer), you're trying to put over the nameless "W," who comprises only half the cast of Duncan Macmillan's two-hander (through March 10 at the New Rep), but who is talking for something like 90% of the script.  "W" talks and talks.  And talks.  She banters, she barters, she barks; she harries and harangues, badgers and berates, accosts and accuses.  She never shuts up.

And this causes problems for Hayes, and Macmillan's play, too.  It's not just that Lungs never gives its leading lady a chance to catch her breath; it's that her character's annoying volubility keeps drawing focus from what appears to be Macmillan's theme.  The playwright seems to be attempting a kind of wry black comedy about the way millennial morals bleed into narcissism - for when "M" innocently suggests to "W" that they think about having a baby (he pops the question in IKEA, no less), she erupts not with happy surprise but instead with every save-the-planet clich√© in the Whole Earth Catalogue (remember that?), as well as every insecure accusation she can think of.  Indeed, unlike just about every other professional woman with an eye on the biological clock, "W" seems determined to find every and any excuse not to have a child.

But therein lies the rub.  As "W" rants on about her carbon footprint (so why not stop talking?) and her doubts about her partner - he smokes (!), he needs a better job - we begin to realize that all her criticism isn't going anywhere constructive.  There's no plan for the future in the offing, and the possibility of adoption is never investigated - the conversation is just a cascade of her own issues; indeed, "W" sucks up so much oxygen that we begin to wonder why anyone in his right mind would want a child with her; for a gay man, watching these scenes is like peering into the seventh circle of some special heterosexual hell.

(Spoilers ahead!)

Such a neurotic display also forces us to consider these two constructs as characters, but Macmillan denudes them of all specifics (indeed, the stage is supposed to be completely bare, although the New Rep sneaks in a backdrop of what might be a bronchial tree).  Thus this pair never really looks in the mirror; we suffer through all their symptoms, but we're denied a diagnosis.  So while "M" and "W" are presented as archetypes, they're hard to fathom; but then (surprise!) the playwright yanks the rug out from under us with a plot twist that not only renders his conflicted couple poignantly ridiculous, but also guarantees them a fund of audience sympathy.

But wait!  There's yet another twist - and a corresponding shift in tone - that pulls M&W back onto the road to parenthood, which this time they accept with no questions asked.  And yet there's more.  Suddenly Macmillan accelerates into a fast-forward play-by-play that lands one of his characters in a nursing home, and the other in the grave.  Ta-da!  The end.

So where are we now?  It's hard to say.  I'd argue that Macmillan has meant for the breezy irony of his final scenes to blow through the entire play - he's calling bullshit on an entire latte-sucking generation.  But director Bridget Kathleen O'Leary's forte is perceptive empathy - so there's a built-in conflict, and a kind of funny hinge, in her production; halfway through, she seems to just give up and let the characters she has been trying to build up ever-so-carefully suddenly slip on Macmillan's biological banana peel and go splat.  

Although frankly, the performers looked a little relieved.  And for the record, Liz Hayes does hang onto something like our sympathy through everything; this actress is such an open and likable presence that she's often cast to take the edge off obnoxious roles, and that helps her here; plus she has done her usual careful homework on the part, and beat by beat she's impeccable.  Hayes may actually be slightly upstaged by Nacer, though, who seems to always be at his best when he's just silently emoting (The Aliens, Our Town); here he manages to be adorable even when he's haltingly confessing to what amounts to adultery.  Indeed, the real (if unintentional) question raised by this production may be, Who wouldn't want to have this guy's baby?

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