The summer theater season has just begun, and I've already seen what I hope will be the most exasperating play of the year. Lungs is the inaugural production in the newly renamed Sydelle and Lee Blatt Performing Art Center—Barrington Stage Company's former Stage Two, in the building that until last week also housed Pittsfield's VFW hall. The upstairs theater is now named after resident playwright Mark St. Germain, and Mr. Finn's Cabaret, in the newly refurbished downstairs bar, honors composer William Finn, head of BSC's Musical Theatre Lab.
Duncan Macmillan's 90-minute two-hander is a setless, propless, often motionless exercise in nonstop conversation. A young couple, called simply M and W, agonize over whether or not to have a baby, given the planet's fucked-up present and precarious future. Can they in good conscience place another carbon footprint onto Mother Earth? The dialogue is fragmented, stop-and-go, overlapping—intentionally superrealistic rather than "theatrical." Which is fascinating, actually, often funny and a pretty faithful rendering of today's fractured thought processes.
At least, that's the playwright's intention—to create the world of his nameless characters' relationship, as he says in a program note, through "their words, their decisions, their streams-of-consciousness and their silences." But it seems that one of his characters got away from him. The man, M, is an ordinary guy, easygoing and rational, but W, the woman, is a jabbering mass of neuroses, and it's her hang-ups and obsessions that drive the relationship and the play.
What Macmillan calls "this little conversation that eventually comes to span a lifetime" turns into a case study of solipsistic hysteria. W is a model of long-winded self-absorption, and poor M becomes by contrast the quintessence of incomprehensible patience, waiting to get a word in edgeways. I wondered if I just wasn't connecting to female hopes and fears around childbirth, but my companion, a mother of four, didn't find her sympathetic either, "just annoying."
High praise, however, to the two performers, Brooke Bloom and Ryan King, whose headlong performances keep things stimulating and occasionally convincing. Bloom in particular manages to make her bizarre character consistently interesting, if appalling.
Another compelling 90-minute performance has just opened Shakespeare & Company's season. Tod Randolph is mesmerizing in Cassandra Speaks, Norm Plotkin's one-woman play about the journalist Dorothy Thompson. A Berlin-based correspondent in the early Nazi era, Thompson initially underestimated Hitler and later used her syndicated column to rail, in vain, against the growing menace. The show's title evokes the Trojan princess gifted with prophecy but cursed with never being believed.
Surrounded by books and papers in the den of her Vermont farmhouse as she works on this week's column while preparing for her third wedding—and waxing melancholy over the previous two—Randolph's Thompson regales us with anecdotes from her personal and professional life: interviewing Hitler ("formless, pudgy, empty, a man without qualities"), skinny-dipping with Edna St. Vincent Millay, borrowing train fare from Freud to go and cover a revolution in Poland. It's an absorbing overview of an era, performed with gusto and passion by one of our most thrilling actresses.
Lungs: Through June 10, BSC's St. Germain Stage, 36 Linden Street, Pittsfield, (413) 236-8888, barringtonstageco.org.
Cassandra Speaks: Through Sept. 2, Shakespeare & Company, 70 Kemble St., Lenox, (413) 637-3353, shakespeare.org.
Contact Chris Rohmann at StageStruck@crocker.com.