With British playwright Duncan Macmillan’s Lungs, Studio Theatre begins The Studio Lab Series – new plays produced bare bones for $20 a ticket. It’s an admirable venture that I’m excited to watch develop.
However, this first play out of the gate isn’t particularly innovative – though if the playwright’s intention is to resurrect the existential crises of the 1980’s TV series Thirtysomething for today’s thirtysomethings, then certainly he has suceeded. Or, as one woman put it, leaving the theater in a negative huff, "white people’s problems."
It’s a pity the subject matter isn’t attacked in a more daring way, because Macmillan has a beautiful way with words. The natural cadence of the language, poetical vibrancy mixed with modern urgency, is definitely potent – but it’s at the service of the wrong plot. Lungs is jampacked with tired rom com characterizations about a young couple’s struggle to decide the future of their relationship. If it weren’t for the expressive sincerity displayed by the high professionalism of the actors and the direction, I might believe it to be an intentional (and rather cruel) satire on the "quarterlife crisis" movement. Especially as the plot can seem like hipster cliches on crack:
She’s the environmentalist PhD candidate, he’s the slacker musician! She’s a little bit psycho, he’s a little bit clueless! Wait, he’s the one who wants the baby? Insert Ikea and coffeeshop jokes! Watch out for the temp!
There’s not a single stereotypical moment in the lifeline of coupledom that isn’t explored here, the whole painful process of a paralyzed generation that supposedly thinks too much and acts too little. "I want to do everything for the right reasons," the neurotic W (Brooke Bloom) proclaims, repeatedly looking for confirmation that she and the more laid-back M (Ryan King) are a kind, thoughtful couple, that their sex can be spiritual and not pornographical, that conception is a miracle – it’s a net of words that continually destroys and rebuilds their intimacy. Though tender moments ensue occasionally as they dance around whether or not to have a baby, to break up or reconnect, the dialogue is mostly so borderline misogynistic/misanthropic in that "women are irrational psychos, men are thoughtless cheaters!" way it ultimately distracts from any greater message. It also can’t release you from the deja vu feeling that you’ve heard it all before, making it that much harder to care.
As the couple, actors Brooke Bloom and Ryan King are sensitively tuned to each other, listening and reacting with a heightened naturalism, attacking the text with true dedication – exceptionally well-played. Director Aaron Posner keeps the action simple, fast and specific, while the sparse production design by Luciana Stecconi also showcases the fine acting. One expects nothing less from Studio, but that alone can’t overcome the play’s deficiencies.
Lungs seems like an exorcism of every bad break-up story you’ve ever had to suffer through, as the cliches alternately sadden, alienate, and infuriate. There’s a fair amount of schadenfreude laughter too, which makes sense given we’ve all gone through at least one of the situations on display. It’s apparent from John Barry of DC Theatre Scene’s interview with Macmillan that the playwright earnestly believes his generation is the first to experience these things with such urgency, the first to stare down the loaded gun of environmental ruin… But as portrayed here, W and M are just the same as every other couple, as every other generation, in every other play or movie or sitcom about their plight.
The Studio Lab Series production of Lungs is in performance through October 16 at the Studio Theatre, located at 1501 14th Street NW, Washington, DC 20005. Closest Metro stops: McPherson Square (Orange/Blue lines), Dupont Circle (Red line), U Street/Cardozo (Yellow/Green lines). For more information call 202-332-3300.