What, to ask the perennial theatergoer’s question, is Duncan Macmillan’s “Lungs” about? It’s about climate change, isn’t it? No, it’s a play about deciding whether to have a baby. Actually, like his earlier success “People, Places, Things,” in which Macmillan balanced a personal story with a depiction of addiction, it’s a juggling of two subjects at once. That’s the major reason this two-hander has been consistently revived since its 2011 premiere, but it is hard to imagine a finer outing for it than Matthew Warchus’ gleaming, ideally paced Old Vic production starring Claire Foy and Matt Smith, last seen playing a considerably more upmarket couple in “The Crown.”
Throughout the 80-minute running time, Macmillan doesn’t waste a second. Like Aaron Sorkin but without the follow-up explanations, his lickety-split, deft and direct dialogue lassoes audiences from the opening line as Smith’s character drops a bombshell by asking Foy, his partner, about them maybe having a baby. She is thunderstruck, not only that he has had the temerity to raise the subject — she thought she’d be the one to start the conversation — but ”that you’ve decided to start now. In IKEA.”
The big laugh that raises is symptomatic of the whole show, which is funnier than any synopsis would suggest. That it should land its many laughs so effectively is a tribute to the production’s ability to traverse the stages of the relationship not through action but via their thoughts and fears. And their worries aren’t just personal: They’re questioning their place in the world at a time in which the notion of having children at all feels risky.
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Both of the unnamed protagonists are torn by self-doubt that constantly swings into action to smother their instincts. Lean and loping, Smith is the less neurotic of the two. Although given to questioning their actions and motives, his verbal ticks and manner incline more to making prompt pronouncements and decisions which he then checks back.
Foy’s more front-footed character constantly doubles-back on her every utterance. She almost never completes a thought before darting off with a qualification, an equivocation, a sudden musing or a seeming non-sequitur that she chases to find its source. She upbraids herself as much as she does her partner.
What makes it engrossing rather than self-indulgent is the lightning speed of both the writing and, thanks to Warchus’s surgical precision of pacing, the acting. What this most defiantly is not is a debate play. This is not an evening of issues, unpacked with reasoned arguments. Macmillan’s scenes — some one line long — often make David Mamet look long-winded. There is no unnecessary preamble, no scene-setting. Every ounce of fat has been trimmed away and cut to the marrow.
The shards of dialogue and illuminated moments are shared and slung between the two actors on Rob Howell’s prop-free, in-the-round set, which serves to highlight their sparring interplay. The often exhilarating result is something between a lovers’ boxing match and a non-stop tennis rally.
And for the first half of the play, pretty much all of this is focused fiercely around the choice they make to have the baby and whether or not that’s a responsible decision for them as partners and as people living on a planet that is “totally f—ing f—ed.”
Although consciously addressed, the couple’s navel-gazing does threaten to grow repetitive. But the slackening tension is halted by two plot twists that reverse both the characters’ and the audiences’ expectations. And the coda-like final scenes have a melancholy that are a testament to the power of the writing that precedes them.
The waking up of the world outside — and specifically, the worries of the soon-to-be parental generation — to the climate emergency makes “Lungs” even more timely than when it first appeared.