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Lungs Will Leave You Short of Breath

lungs.press.4One conundrum in reviewing theater, especially local companies, but even regional leaders, is addressing the balance between production and script.
I strive to address both with a decent amount of attention, as space and time permit. In the particular case of our local theatrical landscape, I find script choice a fairly prominent issue for critique. Particularly at the Kitchen, whose mission is to play a role in the development of contemporary theater.
The Kitchen has developed to the point where I always expect excellence of production, and am very rarely disappointed. Sometimes casting may be slightly off, sometimes the direction or design may miss out on something that appears central to my point of view. But usually the production rocks.
The scripts vary. Perfection is not my goal in seeing a play, and I believe in plays that take risks, preferring a strong play with a major flaw to something small, neat and tidy.
Yet, the script still drives the majority of theater, and the playwright must be taken to task.
So let me preface this review: Lungs at the Kitchen Theatre is gorgeously acted, with high commitment, lighting fast emotional shifts, and a physicality abstract yet organic shaped under the keen eye of director Michelle Minnick, and supported with sharp design (Tyler M. Perry on lights and set; Anthony Mattana, original music and sound; Lisa Boquist, costumes.)
To the play:
When I was asked my opinion opening night of Lungs at the Kitchen Theatre by a playwright/actor and inveterate theater-goer, I replied that the play made me “dizzy.”
Dizzy, exhausted. Thrilled by the demands on my attention from the fast-moving, densely written dialogue. Battered by the constant back-and-forth of the high-octane relationship between the two characters depicted. Annoyed by shortcuts taken as the playwright tried to wriggle out of the crisis he had built. Searching, anywhere, for a landing spot.
Searching as well for a word to encompass my recurring experience as the Kitchen offers up some of the latest contemporary playwriting.
Velocity. That might fit.
Lungs, as Cock before it, and to some extent Venus in Fur and From White Plains this season, are go-for-broke plays. Above all else they are saturated with words. The settings are stripped-down, (in Cock and in Lungs, the playwright demands a nominally “bare” theatrical stage, with no attempt to differentiate scenes with the markers of costume, lighting or sound effects.)
For a while, this proves refreshing: actor-driven theater goes back to the basics after all. But both Duncan Macmillan (Lungs) and Mike Bartlett (Cock) assert ‘radicalism’ in their approach while utilizing commonplace, even cliché dramaturgy to make their effects.
The non-musical stage seems to be ever shrinking in our age, willing to admit only the smallest slice of humanity into its scope. Of course, this is partly economics. A two-person play, no set, one pair of costumes? A play born to be optioned, at least if it has a bit of an edge.
Macmillan and Bartlett are contemporary Brit male writers, who share a history with a group titling themselves the “Apathists”, writers of both genders working out of Theatre 503 in London in 2006-07. As an adaptation to circumstances, these works thrum with new energy. But not all these two playwright’s ideas are that new—for instance, the further abstracting of fully drawn characters to gender-specific letters (M, W) which reaches back to expressionism and to absurdism—or useful. The characters they write have (juicy) specificity. This non-naming is simply not taking responsibility for the writing.
It’s more acute a problem in Lungs, because ultimately Macmillan falls into an exhausted vein of (heterosexual) woman-as-(too)-emotional needing (heterosexual) man-as-rational-and-decisive to move the story into a more hopeful, yet less believable trajectory. Macmillan tops this off with a sentimental theater sleight of hand that is stylistically out of the established lines of the play.
In truth, my best guess is Macmillan started with the pregnant notion of what it means to bring a child into a world in a fairly apocalyptic moment (climate change / global warming is the thematic underpinning of the show), then let his characters take over (desirable), but stopped listening to them in his own need to make the play fit his original conceit.
Given all this (and “this” is critical when we look, for instance, at the many female playwrights making more radical demands on theater on both sides of the Atlantic) the Kitchen’s production is propulsive, brilliant and highly involving under the astute, sharp, physically popping direction of Minnick and the work of actors Jesse Bush and the mesmerizing Anne Troup.
Troup’s character is obsessive, highly verbal, over-thinking every moment of her life. Yet this woman is also bold, aggressively honest and struggling for deep connection. Troup is hotly present, vibrating with need, desire, and intelligence. It’s a sharp, funny performance of a character who almost breaks out of the play, yet wilts at last under the writer’s scalpel.
Bush is an attentive, gravid, and fluid partner. Especially lovely was a long soliloquy of M’s when his partner is asleep.
This is three-quarters of a fantastic new play. The concluding quarter, however, diminishes all that came before.
I recommend it as an invigorating experience. I also hope the Kitchen explores less masculinist voices next season.

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