British playwright Duncan MacMillan achieves a rare feat with his 2011 play Lungs, making its Pittsburgh premiere at Off the Wall Productions. He’s written a two-character play about a man and a woman, stuffing it with every single relationship cliché you can imagine, and has come up with some of the most compelling 100 minutes of theater around.
I sat there as the extremely, let’s be charitable and call them well-worn plot points and events duly made an appearance, and yet I fell for each one: Woman and Man (the characters go unnamed) are thinking about wanting to have a baby. She does and he doesn’t, then he does but she doesn’t. He’s forced to give up his musical-career dreams, she deals with in-law problems. There’s the inevitable break-up, infidelity, reunion … I could go on, but what’s the point? Anything that flashed into your head when I said “play about a relationship” finds its way into Lungs. And not once was my attention anywhere else.
Alfred Hitchcock once said that drama is life with the boring bits cut out. MacMillan takes the same approach and doesn’t waste time on transitions: We are continually dropped into the middle of high-voltage scenes only long enough to get the idea, then whisked off into another happening days or months later. Most flamboyantly, he uses a highly idiosyncratic stage vocabulary that’s so elliptical it would make David Mamet seem loquacious.
His only stumble is, oddly, the element he employs to make the play “fresh.” Woven into the couple’s arguments are worries about global climate change … and they always sound like PSAs. In the hermetically sealed world of this play’s theatricality, any mention of anything in the real world seems false.
But mostly, I think, I was riveted because of the extraordinary performances of Sarah Silk and Alec Silberblatt. With Spencer Whale’s unbelievably focused and achingly controlled direction, Silk and Silberblatt burst onto the stage and for an hour-and-a-half burn their way through this play with a style and intelligence that I’m sure has left scars.
My hat is lifted to some brilliant, brilliant work.