Interesting and engaging, but play has nothing to say

Lungs, by Duncan Macmillan, directed by Weyni Mengesha, running at Tarragon Theatre’s Extraspace to Jan. 25.

Several weeks ago I reviewed The Bakelite Masterpiece, a two-hander that, despite an ending that stuck in my craw, provided an entertaining and thought-provoking night at the theatre, one I cheerfully recommended to friends and colleagues despite the sizable “but” I could not dismiss.

Now playing in that same auditorium comes Lungs, a remount of Tarragon Theatre’s critically acclaimed 2014 production about the trials and successes of a young couple’s romantic relationship. It works in every way Bakelite did not: the play’s arc, themes and character motivations are clear, and it builds to an emotionally resonant conclusion.

The play is impeccably written and directed, and its actors are, for the most part, very good. Yet I can’t recommend it as cheerfully as I could Bakelite, for the same reason I think films like Avatar and Gravity are worth a full-price IMAX ticket and romantic comedies are not: it doesn’t justify the price of admission.

Every year the Toronto Fringe Festival puts on at least one play as emotionally resonant as Lungs for $10. This one would have made the perfect Fringe play: two actors, two lighting cues — lights up, lights down — and no set. Audiences would have raved about it, then cheerfully spent $20 to see it during the Toronto Centre for the Arts’ annual Best of Fringe.

Indeed, critics raved about Lungs the last time around, and make no mistake, their cheers were justified. British playwright Duncan Macmillan’s script is deceptively simple: a continuous conversation mapping the highs and lows of the central couple’s relationship over several years. It constantly jumps forward in time without breaks in the dialogue, yet somehow actors Lesley Faulkner and Brendan Gall always make the passage of time, and its impact on their characters (simply called W and M), perfectly clear.

Director Weyni Mengesha’s approach is jarring at first, but gradually forces the audience to suspend its disbelief.

The play begins with W and M standing in place. Soon they mention being at IKEA, and soon after that they mention standing in line. Minutes later they’re apparently driving, all the while remaining in their initial positions. Throughout the show, whenever W and M directly interact with each other — cuddling, lying next to each other, breathing heavily after sex — they act normally, but neither makes any attempt to mime, say, the acts of driving, sitting at a dinner table, lying in bed or attending a meeting. Within 10 minutes it looks completely natural, and it wasn’t until afterward that I considered how carefully the entire 70-minute production was directed.

The actors themselves are engaging, with believable chemistry, though I must concede that while Gall disappeared into his character Faulkner occasionally appeared to be fighting a smirk. (To be fair, hers is by far the tougher role.)

I haven’t quoted any dialogue here, but it is funny and relateable. Yet, aside from “relationships are hard” — and unlike Bakelite’s fascinating discussion about what we truly want when we ask for “the truth” — Lungs has nothing to say.

For that reason alone you have to ask yourself if it’s worth the price of admission. I couldn’t honestly answer in the affirmative.

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Posted: Jan 8 2015 1:11 pm
Filed in: Column  VIEWS