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.
by Duncan Macmillan. Directed by Aaron Posner. Lighting, Colin K. Bills; sound, James Bigbee Garver; dramaturgy, Adrien-Alice Hansel. About 90 minutes. Through Oct. 16
at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Visit www.studiotheatre.org or call 202-332-3300.