Listening to a manic PhD student and a human man-bun argue about whether they should bring a child into this hell world might not sound like a good way to spend part of your evening, but after watching Really Really Theatre Group's production of Duncan Macmillan's 2011 chamber play Lungs, I can comfortably say I recommend it.
On a bright, bare set designed by Lex Marcos—tiled with huge pieces of extremely well-sanded plywood, so it almost looks like the white room in The Matrix—at 12th Avenue Arts, where Lungs runs through August 31, the man, played with warmth and a deceptively lulling calmness by Arjun Pande, announces his desire to help produce a child. This statement unleashes a torrent of hopes, joys, fears, and misgivings from within his partner (Erika Vetter, who plays her role with incredible skill and dynamism). What follows is nearly 100 minutes of smart, charming, rapid-fire dialogue about a deal-breaker issue for many: Should we have a baby?
Watching these two actors sweep out the corners of this argument is fascinating. They run through all the ancient and contemporary anxieties: Are we ready? Won't this disrupt our life? Isn't this the purpose of our life? But isn't it morally wrong to have a child, especially considering its potential carbon footprint? The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report shows that the next generation will inherit a melted slushy with an intractable refugee crisis, why would we want to contribute to that? Isn't the world overpopulated? Should we adopt? But don't we need more "good people" having kids? And what about "the biological imperative" and the thousands of years of foundational cultural materials directing people to be fruitful and multiply? And don't you just kinda want one?
Macmillan's language sparks with enough wit and intelligence to hold your interest, and he uses associative leaps to jump forward in time, which keeps the plot moving along. Plus, the characters don't answer this big question in the abstract. They answer it over the course of their delightfully messy, unpredictable relationship, which is fun to watch explode and come back together and explode again.
The quality of the acting keeps your eyes glued to the stage. Vetter and Pande turn in markedly different but complementary performances. Pande's steady, predictable sine wave of human emotion contrasts well with Vetter's more drastic peaks and valleys. But Vetter never overdoes it, which is incredibly impressive in a rom-com-dram that has her cracking jokes, breaking down, and trembling with anxiety—all while speaking a million miles an hour.
Director Henry Nettleton and lighting designer Aaron Tacy correctly emphasize the play's bleak thesis, which is that, more or less, our desire to create will ultimately lead to our destruction. Though our ability to reason allowed us to conquer the planet, we haven't yet found a way to use it to tame our desire to answer the biological imperative.
Although as I left the theater, I thought: We could have it both ways. After all, overpopulation isn't really the issue. Inadequate distribution of resources is. We can have all the babies we want, so long as we reduce our consumption to a reasonable level. Advocating for women all over the world to have control over when they get pregnant would help a lot, too. But, you know, baby steps.