We’ve lost the art of disagreement. Take a gander at any subsection of our culture as a whole: political, social, or even pop-cultural. Gone are the days in which we utilize our different opinions to infer the strengths and weaknesses in each other’s thoughts, and seek to better one another. Now, whether the conflict is large or small, it’s all about us versus them. To each individual comes the arrogance of self-declared perfection of thought. Anyone who dares to not even oppose them but simply suggest a fault in their logic is declared the biased opposition and promptly stonewalled. Perhaps as a critic I’m biased, but criticism is not meant to defame or harm the target; it’s to lend an outsider’s perspective in hopes of improving that which is being critiqued. From my point of view, I’ve never said anything negative towards a production in an effort to be mean or dastardly, but because I respect the artists and venues involved in the productions. I want to see them improve and succeed. It’s truly sad to live in a world in which we, both as individuals and as members of groups, have inflated our egos to the point of being unable to accept any dissenting views on our thoughts without feeling the subject of a vicious attack, thus spurred to retaliate. Nothing will improve that way. To quote one of my favorite Samuel Beckett passages, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” We’re all imperfect, so we might as well open ourselves up to others’ thoughts and feelings to fill in the gaps as best we can.
Lungs by Duncan Macmillan follows a young, modern couple as their prolonged conversation on whether or not they should have a child that takes them through the highs and lows of their relationship as they consider the logical, emotional, and ethical ramifications of their decision (with particular emphasis on the environmental impact a single human being’s life places upon the world). But as their whirlwind conversation takes them through every kind of agreement and disagreement through ongoing days, months, and years they begin to question if their relationship will withstand with or without a child.
Set on an empty stage beneath a menagerie of hanging lamps, given only what lighting is needed for each segment, and occupied by only a small handful of sound effects, Hyde Park Theatre’s Lungs is almost entirely dependent of its cast and director. If I could define the show in one word it would be ‘maelstrom’. From the first line the couple (Liz Beckham and Michael Joplin as the aptly named W and M respectively) maintain their frenetic energy throughout most of the production. Whether it’s joy, fear, apprehension, passion, or otherwise, Beckham and Joplin are almost always energized, engaged, and (in regards to one another) polarized. Distance is tangible in Lily Wolff’s (director) blocking on the empty stage. Despite the first scene taking place in line at an Ikea, Beckham and Joplin are as far apart onstage as possible, inching together steadily while maintaining their distance as they pivot around the stage. W and M’s distance is a constant, quantifiable indicator to their emotional distance from one another, yet it never feels forced or contrived. My initial fear upon this realization was that the blocking would feel stunted and unnatural, but thankfully I was 100% wrong. There’s never a moment in which Beckham or Joplin feel out of place or following a script (so to speak), all of which is made more impressive by the seamlessness of their physical pacing when paired with the volume and speed of their dialogue. Neither actor leaves the stage throughout the production from start to finish. Seldom is there a moment of pause for either of them to collect themselves within the ring of audience members surrounding them. It’s an impressive feat regardless of the performances’ quality, yet Beckham and Joplin excel in those regards as well.
Much like the letters that signify their names, W and M are at once identical and complete opposites of one another. While almost always on the other side of coin from one another, their continual concerns about themselves, each other, and world showcase two individuals who bounce off one another perfectly (both as characters and as actors). Beckham, as a Ph.D. candidate, tends to work the offensive stance more throughout the play, which often presents itself through Beckham’s manic nature. Whiel capability of maintaining a sense of calm, W is almost always frenetic throughout the production, more willing to see the faults in their plans, and ready to burst. Contrary to Beckham, Joplin, while also somewhere on the manic scale throughout, tends to stay more grounded and positive about their future, which results in him taking the defensive more often than not. But this wouldn’t be a well-written play if the character didn’t have their share of reversals, and my goodness do W and M trade stances on multiple occasions. Mind you, the performances aren’t completely flawless. While the level of energy maintained throughout the show was impressive I felt the intensity of it began before the script called for it. A steady, mounting sense of urgency and friction would have helped the flow of the production, but this was only a concern in the early portions of the play. By the time the tension had mounted the audience was already on the same page as the cast. Though some fault may be in Macmillan’s script as well. While his dialogue is top-notch, when you step back from the performances, the plot itself isn’t terribly interesting, but Lungs isn’t a show about the plot. It’s about intensity and intimacy.
It’s a credit to both the actors and Macmillan’s dialogue that this couple, while sometimes infuriating through their constant bickering, feel completely believable in their actions and arguments. I take it as a good sign for both acting and writing when characters can give me a genuine moment of frustration for it speaks volumes to their credibility and authenticity. And yet, despite all of the emotional turmoil I was shocked by just how much all of us in the audience were laughing. Don’t get me wrong, Lungs is riddled with heavy moments that hit fast and hard, but enough levity is woven throughout the production to keep the show from becoming outright bleak. Even during the harshest moments Beckham and Joplin’s natural charisma carries you through, hanging on to the thinnest thread of hope for them and their world. There’s rarely a moment in which W or M become turgid enough in their convictions to become unlikeable. Rather they both find a balance between overthinking/frustrating and accurately concerned in their concerns. They’re thoroughly human albeit somewhat exaggerated in their intensity, and that’s a rare treat to see onstage. Lungs easily gets my recommendation for anyone in the mood to see two remarkable performers’ impressive display of onstage intimacy.
Lungs continues playing at the Hyde Park Theatre on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays at 8pm except for its final weekend (10/20 to 10/22) in which it plays on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 8pm.