Feeling a bit overwhelmed by some of the magnificent productions on DC theater boards, their elegant sets and colorful costumes either enhancing or competing with the luscious language emanating from lushly made-up mouths of too many characters to count without a playbook? If so, does Studio Theatre have a play for you.
Lungs, the inaugural production of Studio’s new Lab Series, opens onto a starkly simple set: A weathered parquet floor and similarly textured backdrop are illuminated by white light emanating from four large rectangular reflecting panels angled above the stage.
A young couple, a woman (“W,” Brooke Bloom) and a man (“M,” Ryan King), are in line at IKEA, having one of those can’t-they-wait-till-they-get-home conversations about whether or not to do something. She’s a bundle of raw nerves, his attempts to placate her only exacerbating the situation. The issue? Whether or not to try to have a baby.
Lungs is Deborah “You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation” Tannen and John “Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus” Gray (or humorist Dave Barry’s unforgettable Roger and Elaine) brought to hilariously, agonizingly true life.
Like a hyperbolically hyperactive six-year-old whose mom forgot the meds, W doesn’t hold anything back; if she feels it, she blurts it, usually to her alternately confused and bemused, but essentially gentle and well-meaning partner. W frets about every conceivable aspect of having and raising a child, from the gestational to the global; M counters that the smartest, most caring people aren’t having children, so it’s up to people like them to do their part to help correct the imbalance. Whereupon she accuses him of promoting eugenics, only to quietly admit, her sense of shame almost palpable, that she feels the same way, but is repelled when she hears it said out loud.
The two of them are perfect partners dramatically if not practically, playing off each other’s doubts and fears, perceived or articulated, flinging the ball back and forth and picking at fresh scabs, only to backtrack or deny responsibility or intentionality, sometimes almost before the blow strikes home.
Unable to reach agreement with M on virtually any aspect of the Child Question, from the micro (positing a mind-numbingly detailed itemization of potential PTA duties) to the macro (bringing another life into a violent, polluted, already overcrowded world), W suddenly tells him she’s ready. His open-mouthed, deer-in-the-headlights response, as priceless as it is wordless, is immediately seized upon as a personal repudiation of her and what she wants. “You’re giving off a lot of hate,” she tells him, then offhandedly adds: “I don’t want you to take that the wrong way.”
As in life, it’s not the things they consciously fear that will cause a seismic shift in their relationship, but the things they never gave much thought to, thinking themselves too intelligent to fall prey to the ills that plagued their parents’ generation, such as divorce, by never having tied the knot. When the worst happens, they are even more strangers than they were before, M perplexed by her unyielding coldness and W roughly rejecting his puzzled, hesitant attempts to find out what’s wrong.
W, as portrayed by the astounding Brooke Bloom, is by turns endearing and impossible; Ryan King plays M with a kind of tormented good will. M is dependable, but has a violent streak he wonders whether or not he should repress. Both actors create such a seamless relationship that the monstrous complexity of “being together” breathes through them. It is a tribute to their focus and commitment to the story that we root for them most of the time, and hold onto them until the very end.
Through lightning-swift shifts in mood and movement, Bloom and King, skillfully directed by Aaron Posner and abetted by James Bigbee Garver’s era-appropriate sound mix, Luciana Stecconi’s spare set and Colin K. Bills’ simple, effective lighting, irresistibly pull us along with them through a half-century of two lives much like our own, or if not, the lives of those we know. Without a single prop, lighting or costume change, the Studio Theatre has inaugurated its new Lab Series with great promise.
All Lab Series plays will feature the same “stripped-down” ethos; having inspired it, Lungs was a natural to open the series, being “a piece that demands simple production values and incredible acting,” according to Artistic Director David Muse.
In addition, Lab Series productions will be affordable to theater lovers on a budget, with ticket prices set at $20, making it a must-see for anyone who thrives on raw, honest, unadorned theater. And if Lungs is a reliable harbinger for future Lab Series shows, this may be just the beginning of the story.
— With appreciation to Brett Busang, playwright, blogger and American realist painter, for his contributions to this article.
directed by Aaron Posner
produced by Studio Theatre
reviewed by Leslie Weisman