WATERTOWN — British playwright Duncan Macmillan’s 2011 drama “Lungs” seems as simple as, well, breathing. It’s to be performed, Macmillan writes, “on a bare stage. There is no scenery, no furniture, no props and no mime. There are no costume changes.” What there is is a couple, M and W, who spend the entire 85 minutes of this intermissionless work talking to, and at, each other. That’s not a lot to work with, but in the New Repertory Theatre production now up in the Black Box at the Arsenal Center for the Arts, director Bridget Kathleen O’Leary and actors Nael Nacer and Liz Hayes manage well enough.
At first, the topic is whether to have a baby, and along with the usual concerns, M and W start asking whether they should be adding to the “seven billion people or so” already in the world. W has a possible solution: “We could work out the carbon footprint of the expanding nappies in the landfill and the Baby Gap hoodies flown in from the Congo or wherever and we could plant trees, entire forests, make something pure and and and oxygenating,
so . . . ” So “Lungs” is about saving the planet and ensuring that future generations have air to breathe, but it’s also about lung power. At one point, W has a single sentence that covers almost a page of printed text.
This isn’t an easy play to bring off. M and W, we learn, are not married. W is going for her doctorate in an unspecified field. M is a part-time musician who works in a record store. Somehow they’ve accrued a mortgage. It’s not a firm foundation for parenthood, and when W in fact does become pregnant, you wonder whether they won’t talk the baby to death. Both characters are extremely self-conscious; they speak in starts and stops, overlapping each other and often not listening. And for all their concern about the environment, they never get around to implementing any of their ideas.
Jen Rock’s set is a 12-foot-square platform with a transparent gauze curtain at the back and, behind that, a metal structure that suggests tree roots and is lit in varying tones of red, blue, and yellow. A few changes in the text have been made to Americanize the couple; W’s reference to “Hitler or Tony Blair” becomes “Hitler or Cheney.” Nacer and Hayes stalk the stage, stalk each other, sit on the edge, and talk at the audience. There’s some hugging and very general miming of sex; there’s a lot more standing apart.
Nacer has the easier role. His M is boyish, natural, full of wonder; he always seems reasonable, even when he’s ducking the issue, as in the weak smile he gives W when she proposes they get married. During W’s long soliloquy he kisses her hand and massages her shoulders. When, at her urging, he gets a corporate job, he buttons his blue plaid overshirt to suggest a suit and looks very pleased with himself.
Hayes’s W, on the other hand, radiates negativity and disappointment; she scolds, she smirks, she deflates M with sarcastic body language. It’s an expert performance, and may well be what Macmillan intended, but I wish Hayes and O’Leary could have softened the character earlier than the play’s final poignant minutes. It’s W who has the last line, though, and with it Hayes breathes love into “Lungs.”