Lungs; A Review

Lungs: A Review


Howard Adelman


Last night, Nancy and I went to see Lungs, a 75 minute torrent of words written by British playwright Duncan Macmillan and directed by Weyni Mengesha now playing at the Tarragon Theatre in Toronto. Last night, my youngest son, Gabriel, went to see Chekhov’s The Seagull playing at the Berkeley Theatre and directed by Peggy Coffey. I warned Gabriel before he left that if Chekhov is not directed properly with the right cast and Chekhov’s acute comic sense, the play can seem like a terrible bore, especially to modern audiences. I have watched The Cherry Orchard, The Three Sisters and Uncle Vanya and most productions tend to be slow and ponderous. Chekhov’s wit and comedy are lost in stilted performances in which the actors’ bodies seem only to be there to hold their mouths. Even worse, the performers usually lack souls so that the actors’ words float free disconnected from eros and thanatos that are always at war in Chekhov’s writing just as he saw them at war in his medical practice. I so want Gabriel to see great productions because I want him to love the theatre as much as I do. As a film director haunted by death, he could learn a great deal from Chekhov’s ability to create scenes with Death ever present but without the Grim Reaper appearing on stage.  Premier Pauline Marois in Québec could also learn from Chekhov’s mastery for last night she was evidently unable to keep the spectre of another sovereignty referendum off the debate stage.

I will insist he go to see Lungs. It is a whirlwind flow of words that is the very opposite of typical Chekhov productions. The actors require great lungs to deliver their lines at a machine gun pace intermixed with suitable pauses. But Lungs is also about forests as the lungs of the earth, forests which obsess the main characters for they live in fear of environmental destruction and how their carbon footprints and especially that of any child they bring into this world will contribute to the demise of the planet. These two lovers, Woman and Man, W and M, played brilliantly by Lesley Faulkner and Brendan Gall, are contemporary replicas of a dozen characters we have seen in romantic comedies, but with a real twist – they live in existential fear of and for themselves and for this world that bears no resemblance to the fears of nuclear annihilation of the generation of the sixties and of the survivors after WWI who still lived with the dream of building a world that could live in permanent peace in spite of the horrors they went through in the Great War. Unlike previous eras, couples in this generation can choose to have a child or to abort a pregnancy but, unlike previous eras, they feel they can no longer do anything to ensure the planet’s survival let alone their child’s.

And it drives them nuts. Though they move with no greater speed than a Chekhov character, we are in a modern theatre and a modern relationship where lack of commitment, where the need for roots for the trees and forests they want to plant, is evident and worn on their sleeves like the ubiquitous badges on Canadian Goose winter coats that make everyone wearing those coats look like representatives of the Red Cross. While Chekhov’s characters in The Seagull, set at the end of the nineteenth century on his country estate, are wannabe artists, the two characters in Lungs are wannabe wannabes. They just do not know what they want to be when they grow up even though they seem to be in their late twenties or early thirties, M, a laid back placidly pleasant but unsuccessful musician, finally joins the corporate world as some kind of nebulous environmental advisor while W completes her PhD presumably on the environment while educating M and driving him to despair as he reads her books.

They are not engaged in superficial blather. They are concerned with the momentous decisions in everyone’s life. And they do not just express their rapid shifts in mood in rapid-fire chatter. Sometimes, the situation explodes with an intensity of emotions worthy of a Virginia Woolf drama but, unlike Woolf, with every barb and offence totally off target so that you love rather than despise the characters. This is a couple who try to self-assemble their lives as if life was a flattened collection of IKEA pieces that comes along with its own tiny assembly tool along with a set of instructions for assembly but which few PhDs can master but any ordinary handyman can easily. It does not help that this couple lacks a set of instructions, a formula or a key tool for assembling their lives.

Eventually, like the two M’s in Chekhov’s The Seagull, they overcome all their challenges, marry and have a child together. What they also have in common with Chekhov’s characters is that they are bubbling over with despair ad infinitum that impairs their ability to make decisions and take actions. If ecology is the new aesthetics, little else has changed from Chekhov even though the modern play requires no shifts in scenery or divisions into acts and scenes but flows virtually seamlessly in an unbroken hour and a quarter that covers three quarters of a lifetime. We have gone from the standard four act play of the late nineteenth century to the three act plays that I saw in my youth, to the two act plays that no longer needed the first act to set the scene and introduce the players, to the one act drama that dispenses with scenes and scenery, transitions that take more than a second, and pauses that are just long enough for the actors to catch a breath. Instead of Chekhov’s cluttered nineteenth century sets, we have a minimalist constructed IKEA space but without the IKEA furniture with characters wearing clothes as if they stepped in off the street. The play is almost totally lacking in artifice.

But like Chekhov, when directed correctly, the comedy comes through loud and clear as it does in Lungs. What else can one do when watching such desperate frenetic characters in an unremitting dystopia but laugh! We enjoy an evening watching a two-handed play and end with four hands clapping madly even though the comedy proves to be truly tragic and horrific. The play, which started with such enormous strength, fast forwards to a pianissimo ending as in Chekhov. Although there is very little actual action as in Chekhov, unlike Chekhov there is a ton of love. The stage is not throbbing with the unrequited version. 

While Chekhov played with the generation gap and sexual disloyalties, in contemporary sit-coms there is no generation gap for loyalty belongs to a mythological past. The characters, like Chekhov’s, have either not found their way in the world or lost it, and in Lungs both happen at different stages of their lives as they obsess, not like a seagull with nowhere to land in a flooded world nor with the prospect of the destruction of a cherry orchard, but with everyday critical problems about personal survival rather than desire – whether to have a baby or not, whether to abort or not, whether to wed or not, and how to survive a miscarriage and a sexual fling, let alone the standard trope of an engagement to another in the period in which they broke up – as the whole ecosystem is collapsing around them. If The Seagull is a symbol of innocence and purity, ideals and dreams, before they all come into collision with the realities of life, Lungs offers a collision with the realities of life because the characters seem incapable of innocent dreaming and idealistic visions because their idealism has already undermined that possibility and brought them to the brink of despair and neurotic madness.

Like The Seagull, Lungs begins with a strong and rapid paced interchange between M and W as two adults obsessed with environmental degradation stand in line at the furniture store dedicated to the disposable, IKEA, when M inappropriately, but, we learn, typically, raises the prospect of the two of them having a child. W responds like an adult suffering from extreme ADD who has misplaced her Ritalin pills and blurts out one response only to question and contradict it with the next and then take back any desire to respond at all as she immediately suspends that resolve and moves to the attack mode. It is like watching Charlie Chaplin on steroids in the famous scene on the assembly line only in this case, instead of the frenetic speed being determined by the constantly increasing rate of movement of the assembly line, W bounces from one thought to its opposite in a total inability to suppress anything.

M responds in a wide variety of ways but always with bemused confusion and a benign goodwill that inevitably has disastrous consequences. And the greatest confusion is the compulsion to think and talk combined with the inability to do either with clarity or consistency. Though the topics and responses shift with lightning speed, as in Chekhov, the mood merely grows more sombre and the movements of the actors more constricted. The problem, of course, is that although the ambitions of W and M  are not as boundless as that of Chekhov’s characters and are far more down-to-earth, the characters are even more restricted and constricted in exact proportion to their lack of repression. The reality of this age is far more ominous than the end of an era that Chekhov saw with such great insight. For it is not the end of an era they live with but the end of the earth and humanity, with total extinction and not just the extinction of one particular way of life.

If you thought the movie, Gravity, was dizzying, the seismic shifts in topics and moods, the circuitous and convoluted paths that the conversations take, the muddles they get themselves into, and the grasping for air that they find through apologies alternating with rants, insults with expressions of absolute adoration, creates seismic confusion of cosmic proportions. W and M go through all the normal scenes of this type of couple in a typical romantic comedy but in less than five minutes. for the two are as terrified a couple as you have ever seen on the stage and at a much deeper level than Sandra Bulloch’s brilliant performance of physical terror in her galactic smash movie hit. For in this play, the psychic hairpin curves make the ride on the broken arm of a satellite seem to be operating in slow motion. As a member of the audience, you need air and larger lungs than the characters on the stage.

Yet each of the characters is an amalgam of the youth you see and hear with every bit of conversation as true to real life and down on earth as is possible. They presumably are negotiating their way through life, just as Chekhov’s characters did, and they are just as carried along, if not more so, by the spirit of the times as those hapless characters at the end of the nineteenth century were, and are just as incapable of honest conversation and communication, though in a different way, and even though they have a much greater dedication to that ideal.

Go see Lungs if you can and I will go see Chekhov except if Gabriel reports back that the current production is a ponderous bore.

If anyone out there has read the third volume of Julia Glass’ trilogy, And the Dark Sacred Night, can you let me know what you think about the novel.

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