They try but can’t leave it alone. Should they have children or not? The discussion weaves in and out of years of an unnamed couple’s lives in British playwright Duncan Macmillan’s Lungs.
She has always considered herself the kind of person who would have children, but it’s been a fantasy of an Instagram-perfect world made of pretty pictures, not a true expression of love between two people or an imminent choice to make. And as the play opens, he brings up children during a trip to IKEA. She has a meltdown.
“It’s like you punched me in the face and asked me to do a math problem,” she whines.
As she spins out about their suspicious genetic influences and how babies grow up to hate their parents, he says, kindly, “Let’s go home and drink some gin and forget I ever said anything.”
Lungs is a years-long tragi-comic conversation in which they fear for the environmental future of the Earth and rationalize themselves as thoughtful people concerned about carbon footprints and the greater good, even as they confess to not-so-secretly believing that some people — not them, of course — are too stupid to have children.
When Lungs premiered in 2011, Macmillan considered the conversation to be satirical. “It seemed comedic that we would be thinking of having children and talking about the melting of the poles. Now I know people who are having that conversation. I wrote it with this very cynical view of what the world looked like, and it seems that the world has caught up with it,” he told Broadway Direct in March 2020, on the occasion of the play’s revival at London’s Old Vic starring Claire Foy and Matt Smith of The Crown.
In the New Mexico Actors Lab’s production of Lungs, which opened Sept. 30, the conversation doesn’t seem that far-fetched. But that doesn’t make it convincing. Joey Beth Gilbert plays the woman, identified in the script only as W, and Geoffrey Pomeroy plays the man, or M, in an 80-minute production with no intermission. Per the playwright’s desires, the play is performed without a set or special costumes, and there are no sound or lighting changes. This puts the focus on the actors, creating a netherworld where only their characters exist. The point is not the specific trappings of their individual lives, but the way that they’re archetypal as a couple. Director Nicholas Ballas gives the actors two curved, cement benches on an otherwise bare stage surrounded by seating on three sides.
As W, Gilbert is all manic energy, riffing on the character’s fears until she’s out of breath. We learn she is a doctoral candidate (in an unspecified field) and he’s a freelance musician (in an unspecified musical genre) who they agree might need to get a real job if they’re going to seriously consider starting a family.
Unfortunately, Pomeroy is miscast as M. His character should be a stabilizing influence on his partner’s flights of fancy, but on opening night, Pomeroy wasn’t up to the task.
The issue becomes obvious when they decide to have a baby. The characters suddenly launch into a simulation of sex, M growling like a wild animal. The artifice didn’t convey sexual desire and laid bare the actors’ lack of chemistry. When W tells him, mid-coitus, that she doesn’t like the “porno” look on his face and that he reminds her of a serial killer, he’s offended. This should make it possible to empathize with him, but we don’t, even though her observation is offensive, if amusing. As their conversation turns to the different ways men and women approach sex and intimacy, Pomeroy’s delivery ranges from angry and bewildered to hammily sympathetic. By the end of the scene, he does indeed seem eerily similar to a serial killer feigning authentic human feelings. Even though the play demands it, his portrayal of the character lacks important nuance.
It can be a challenge to build a world in a play with two characters and no set, lighting effects, or costumes to distract from the performance. Their only tools are acting and reacting. Gilbert offered a powerful characterization of the woman, but she’s only half of the equation.
The dialogue in Lungs is filled with many laugh-out-loud lines and piercing observations about relationships, but it’s so fast that it often overlaps. Some scenes are searing, as when they reveal their feelings about their families. But, except for in a few scenes of heartbreak and tragedy, the volume and pace of dialogue makes a mess of the give-and-take needed for comedy, and the result is more noise than hilarity. It also makes it difficult to care about the trajectory of their relationship or why they want to be together at all. The actors’ lack of chemistry turns a comedy rooted in shared humanity into a high-decibel theoretical debate between two people playing the roles of “man” and “woman.”
Lungs continues through Oct. 17 at The Lab Theater (1213 Parkway Dr.), 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. General admission tickets are $25, $5 for students. Masks and proof of COVID vaccination required. 505-395-6576, nmactorslab.com