Will they or won’t they?
Should they or shouldn’t they?
The first chunk of the play “Lungs” by British dramatist Duncan Macmillan is devoted to one of the most important decisions a couple can make: whether to procreate or not.
And in this talky, perceptive and unfailingly intelligent one-act work for two actors, finding consensus is difficult in an era when the fate of the world itself is so uncertain.
The forcefully performed and precisely staged production by the young Really Really Theatre Group strikes at the heart of something painful and meaningful. The male character identified as M (Arjun Pande) and his partner W (Erika Vetter) are not married and haven’t been together long. But M has raised the issue of having children, which to the unprepared, bluntly candid W feels like “you punched me in the face then asked me a maths question.”
Even considering the possibility sends the highly strung and brainy W into torrential, think-out-loud monologues in which she tries to imagine parenthood from every angle — what it would mean to her lifestyle, her career (she’s about to finish doctoral studies), her relationship with M.
But what the discussion returns to again and again, as these two self-described “good people” messily sort through their fears and desires, is a broader concern. With an acute awareness of accelerating climate change, and the doomsday predictions of planetary peril (and possible extinction), is adding to the population the right thing to do? Is it right when the carbon footprint of another human being’s life span is summed up in the play as 10,000 tons of C02, “the weight of the Eiffel Tower,” says W. “I’d be giving birth to the Eiffel Tower.”
This is not the first play we’ve seen recently that addresses the considerations of having children, and how such decisions impact prospective parents. Tanya Barfield’s “The Call” at Seattle Public Theater last season dealt with related subject matter, though in a more socio-racial context. And in style, at least, “Lungs” (a title that references both talking and breathing) resembles Nick Payne’s “Constellations.” Staged at Seattle Repertory Theatre several years ago, it’s another two-character British script that encapsulates an entire romantic relationship, warts and all, in a single act.
But “Lungs” is less gimmicky than “Constellations,” and it raises worries and global responsibilities that seem more urgent by the day. (The play premiered in 2011.) The skillfully honed dialogue at times leans toward Albee and Beckett, and is attuned to the jagged-edged, give-and-take of fraught conversations between lovers whose differences become more problematic as they approach a future together.
Vetter’s hyper-anxious W is prone to overthinking, and to interpreting every assertive move from her partner as an assault. And Pande’s more patient, seemingly easygoing M is recessive to a fault at times, and overwhelmed by his counterpart’s emotional demands.
Just when you think they’re going to talk each other to a draw, the deadlock breaks. M and W actually live through some of the things they most fear. And if the specter of ecological catastrophe fades a bit, and some complications are resolved too neatly, that doesn’t negate the power of this little play with big matters on its mind.
Credit that also to the beautifully attuned actors, whose silences and eruptions, distances and intimacies are choreographed so astutely by director Henry Nettleton on a wide strip of stage flanked on two sides by audience members.
The playwright has mandated a bare performance area that allows us to focus entirely on the words and the players, and what they bring up for us observers. The set here is perfect for that. An open expanse of wall and flooring the color of bleached wood, it was designed by Lex Marcos and suggests an open path not yet traveled.
“Lungs” by Duncan Macmillan. Through Aug. 31; Really Really Theatre Group at 12th Avenue Arts, 1620 12th Ave., Seattle; $20-30, with some free tickets available for each show; 800-838-3006, really-really.org