BWW Review: HEISENBERG/LUNGS at American Theatre Company
"Do you find me exhausting but captivating?" This line, from American Theatre Company's production of Heisenberg/Lungs, encapsulates the experience of seeing two striking one-act masterpieces of modern drama back-to-back. With the production of this two-part two-hander, directors Meghan Hurley and Timothy Hunter have demonstrated that Tulsa is equipped with the dramatic chops to do justice to some truly intense pieces of theatre. The plays Heisenberg and Lungs, while separated by only a brief intermission in this production, are entirely discrete works and even have different casts and directors. However, both are by written by contemporary English playwrights and tell the stories of a man and a woman who explore the nature of their relationships and their own place in the world.
Indeed, the pairing of these two plays highlights the most momentous parts of each: the juxtaposition of different lenses on the nature of relationships makes the moments of heartbreak more brutally salient. Both plays begin in media res, during the aftermath of a crucial proposition. In Heisenberg, Georgie has just kissed Alex on the neck in the middle of a London train station even though he is a total stranger. In Lungs, M (this is his only title in the script) has just asked W whether she would like to have children while they were out shopping together.
The couples in each play have very different connections to one another: the comical lack of natural repartee between Georgie and Alex ultimately becomes a perverse brand of chemistry, while the clear bond of shared experiences between M and W manifests as a kind of yoke that is alternately cherished and repudiated. Over the course of Heisenberg, Georgie and Alex relate to each other through a profound sense of loneliness that transforms into intimacy, whereas M and W emerge from intimacy to find themselves alone.
Both plays employ just a single set piece: an elongated black wooden block that is repurposed as a train station bench, a dinner table, a bed, and a restroom. In Lungs, the actors also used the edge of the stage to evoke the inside of a car, a coffee shop, and a kitchen table. These sparse choices seemed fitting for works so intensely focused on the transfer of energy between two individuals. The only other player in these pieces was sound: before the plays began, the Decemberists crooned softly into the audience, and then during Heisenberg, Alex's classical piano record set the tone for a sequence so appropriately contemplative that the minor notes became more of a theatrical mood than a real part of the scene. However, the most striking use of sound in the plays was the creeping rainstorm and rolling thunder in Lungs. It began so subtly that it was unclear whether a storm was brewing outside the theatre or within M and W's world. It was only when the thunderbolts began to synchronize with the text that the connection became fully apparent, and it is a testament to the scant but vivid world created by the play that the storm retained a blurry atmospheric quality for so long.
The crucial element that Heisenberg and Lungs share is their manner of connecting the intimate to the infinite. In Heisenberg, Georgie experiences a kind of combustion as she grapples with loss and identity, and she vacillates frantically between the cringingly personal and the bewilderingly general. Heather Sams plays the part with grace, adding a touch more frenzied anxiety than Mary-Louise Parker's Broadway portrayal of the role. Like Ms. Parker, Ms. Sams presents Georgie as an individual poised on the border between self-conscious deception and genuine unknowability, and she handles the challenge of playing an explicitly manipulative character with true grace.
The character of Alex is largely rooted in the corporeal, but actor Timothy Hunter (incidentally, the director of Lungs) uses his weighty silences to evoke the vast world of the character's unexplored past. This is expressed by Alex's poetic but hackneyed line, "Music exists in the space between the notes" but epitomized by Georgie's harsh evaluation of his diary: "What was amazing to me was the amount of shit you left out." Indeed, Alex's character is written with a lot left out, but Mr. Hunter's astute choice to take a simple approach and not overcompensate with strained profundity makes his portrayal incredibly powerful.
Like Georgie in Heisenberg, W in Lungs is subject to erratic shifts between expressions of personal and global ideas. She is a neurotic academic whose identity is tied to her ability to recognize her own complicity in harmful systems, and yet this esoteric perspective is hilariously compromised by the consideration of a mundane but momentous possibility: bringing a child into the world. Angela McLaughlin as W is a force of nature who is not afraid to seem unlikeable. She is uncompromising in her pursuit of truth for this brutally real character and she gifts us with a frank and excruciating depiction of going through a miscarriage.
Ms. McLaughlin is accompanied by an incredible Thomas Hunt as M, who appears effortlessly comedic and presents a performance that manages to be simultaneously goofy and understated. His bubbly energy contributes to the disorientation of the scene changes, which are immediate and intentionally blurred into the text, creating a kind of frenetic arc of emotion supported by the two characters over the course of the play. Both Ms. McLaughlin and Mr. Hunt guide us through the escalating speed of the passage of time during the last thirty minutes of the play, and then the dizzying rush to the very end in the last five.
Heisenberg and Lungs both provide a riveting exploration of the themes of time, loss, and, of course, uncertainty (although Heisenberg's famous principle is never explicitly referenced). In Heisenberg, the audience is presented with an acting duo as compelling as their recent Broadway counterparts, and Lungs provides us with an equally artful and even more wrenching follow-up. Both provide an opportunity to grapple with uncertain relationships and the exhaustion and captivation that they grant us.