Editors' pick



Editorial Review

‘Lungs’: Fresh breaths at Studio

By Peter Marks
Tuesday, Oct 04, 2011

Studio Theatre embarks on an exciting new path with "Lungs," a bracingly dramatic walk through the thicket of couples communication that proves an auspicious start to the company's ambitions as midwife to original plays.

The inaugural offering of the Studio Lab series, the world premiere of the two-character play by Duncan Macmillan, is at once beguilingly modest and rewardingly polished. Director Aaron Posner ably guides his actors, the outstanding Brooke Bloom and Ryan King, to charmingly recognizable portrayals of young people convulsed by the conflict between their boundless desires and the realities of an age in which dreams of big things - or dreams of any kind - seem a foolhardy affront to nature.

Macmillan, a London-based writer and director, intends these characters - identified as W (Bloom) and M (King) - as composites, enlightened emblems of an emergent generation that considers itself the first to seriously face the Earth's extinction. (Cold War babies might reasonably dissent.) The play's torrent of words is laced with allusions to a dying planet and the preoccupations of the sorts of conscientious citizens who keep obsessive track of their carbon footprints.

That's part of the reason the play's first utterance resounds throughout the 90 minutes that M and W share a bare stage, designed by Luciana Stecconi from a pile of thin wood panels. (No doubt they're recyclable.) "A baby?" M suggests hopefully, unsurely, as W, dumbfounded, tries to process a half-question with both seismic and cosmic implications.

In all their hip, unmarried, consciously unconscious stylishness, M and W begin a halting, circuitous dialogue, rife with muddled thoughts, complaints, rants, digs and apologies, as they try to figure out what each really wants, separately and together. Their musings form a kind of word-cloud portrait of that contemporary romantic malady: ambivalence.

The relationship between W and M comes out of a cute-
comedy convention stretching back to the likes of Corie and Paul, the married if temperamentally mismatched love birds of Neil Simon's "Barefoot in the Park." The updating here has to do both with fast-forwarding past marriage - a child is the lasting proof of their commitment, it seems - and the peculiar weight of worldly concerns that might figure these days in family planning: Does one want to bring new life into a landscape under so much strain already?

Bloom's PhD candidate W is a congenital worrywart who uses her hyper-awareness of impending ecological disaster as a cover for her real terror: that having a child confirms you're a grownup. "If you really cared about the planet, you should kill yourself," she declares, in one of her many manic dodges. It's the more conciliatory and grounded of the pair, King's M, who tries to force his partner to temper her neurotic, contrarian impulses and consider her real feelings about him and a future together.

At times, the ferocity with which Macmillan portrays W's haranguing of M might make you wonder what he sees in her. But the appealing King is thoroughly convincing as the kind of guy attracted to someone with a lot more scary, hairpin turns of personality than he. And that desire for a challenging partner eventually unmasks the weaknesses in songwriter M, who will show that he cannot consistently live up to the image of the stand-up fellow that he cultivates.

Bloom's turn as W is admirably flinty; Posner elicits from her a performance just this side of unlikable. The actress, however, wears W's thin skin with such galvanizing flair that you hang on her every funny way of putting things. If at least once during "Lungs" some exchange between M and W doesn't strike you as a snippet of one of your own conversations, then perhaps this wasn't the evening for you.

Others will find this a smart and stimulating eavesdrop on the modern vocabulary of intimate negotiation. Studio is doing the city a favor, expanding its palette to include plays not previously produced elsewhere. The company had made a few tentative forays in this direction in years gone by, but "Lungs," it seems, augurs a regular platform for new drama on 14th Street NW. If it's all of the caliber of "Lungs," then by all means, bring it on.

Preview of 'Lungs' at Studio Theatre

By Nelson Pressley
Sunday, Sept. 25, 2011

This week the Studio Theatre will do something it seldom does - host a homegrown world premiere. Studio is known for its sterling productions of acclaimed new-ish works, generally leaving the brutal business of play development - the readings and workshops that can leave a hopeful writer dizzy with suggestions but still unproduced - to other troupes.

But as part of its brand-new Lab Series, the Studio is putting its producing muscle behind Duncan Macmillan's "Lungs," giving a full staging to the edgy two-character drama that spans a 50-year relationship.

The developmental series is a test case, said David Muse, in his second season as artistic director of the Studio (and his first having picked the shows). "We are seeing how this goes," he says. "But it doesn't feel like a one-off."

The goal for Muse is to break the troupe's well-established mold just a little. "For most productions at the Studio," Muse says, "it's the actor, the director and the designers. And the script is more or less taken for granted. This is just saying, 'Sometimes it's an exciting thing to invite a writer into the building.' "

Characteristic of the upscale Studio, there is nothing half-baked about this launch. This inaugural Lab Series production has a $50,000 price tag, with Macmillan fully in residence through opening night. Aaron Posner, the award-winning director of many a Shakespearean play at the Folger Theatre, has been hired to direct, in part because Posner helped Muse find the script. The series - featuring only "Lungs" this year - is being marketed with a $20 ticket price, the better to entice audiences young and old who may be skittish about trying something new.

What feels like the Studio dipping its toe into the waters of new play development is likely to evolve into something deeper, even if Muse seems utterly content not knowing exactly what (or how deep) that will be. As a marker of his commitment, last fall Muse hired Adrien-Alice Hansel as the troupe's new literary director. Hansel, a pal of Muse's from their days together studying theater at Yale, has spent most of the past decade wrangling writers at the Actors Theatre of Louisville, home of the influential Humana Festival of New American Plays.

So what lured Hansel to the Studio, where premieres are slightly less rare than eclipses? The chance to help create new programs was part of it, she says during a break from a "Lungs" rehearsal. The Studio's attractive cache of four intimate theaters was another, especially since new plays tend to be spare, not epic.

"That was a huge draw," Hansel says. "To be able to feel like we could do work right."

The case in point is "Lungs." "This really is a play that calls for two great performances in a small space," Muse says.

The upbeat, boyish-looking Macmillan, 31, has been a writer-in-residence in his native United Kingdom, but this is his first stint being on hand through an entire rehearsal period. His 90-minute, no-frills drama, which came out in what he calls a two-day "vomit draft" (which his British accent renders almost elegantly), tackles all of the issues that arise when a young couple think about starting a family.

Autobiographical? Absolutely.

"There's nothing like considering whether or not to have a child," Macmillan says. "It's made me more alert to uprisings and earthquakes. Perhaps every generation's felt like this, but it does feel like the world's particularly fractious and chaotic at the moment."

At the Studio, Macmillan has been chipping away at "Americanizing" the script, but what Muse says is most intriguing about the drama is its bold approach to time - the way it almost mysteriously skips across years. Macmillan says the play calls for no intermission, little set design and no costume changes.

"On the page," Macmillan says, "it feels very open to interpretation, that there's a lot you can do with it. But actually, we're learning there's a lot of very tight rules involved. . . . It requires a particular kind of staging that we've needed to invent."

For Hansel, part of the challenge of "Lungs" and the Lab Series has been establishing habits at the Studio that were old hat in Louisville. Ensure, like clockwork, that the writer gets picked up at the airport. Include him in the design process, even though he's in the United Kingdom. And so on.

"It's interesting coming into an organization that wants to get that right but hasn't done it before," Hansel says.

Hansel and Muse take pains to separate the "new work question" from "the Lab Series question." The Lab Series play is only one of the 11 shows the Studio will offer this season, which is why Muse can say, "It doesn't feel like a whole new world." The Studio has indeed dared the occasional world premiere in its history, but usually under the banner of special events developed elsewhere (like David Cale's solo "The History of Kisses," which Muse slipped into the end of last season) or via the more affordable contracts of the company's adventurous Second Stage unit (which premieres Natsu Onoda Power's "Astro Boy and the God of Comics" in February).

Still, Muse notes that there were pockets of anxiety within the company about leaping beyond the comfort zone of producing and presenting to take the plunge into developing a fresh drama. But after he was hired last year, Muse also picked up this tidbit: Each candidate interviewed for the job raised the idea of the Studio's embracing new plays.

"In one form or another, I think it was coming," Muse says. "And everybody kind of knew it."