The Argument

At first glance, the handsome high-ceilinged apartment in which nearly all of The Argument plays out seems too spacious. How are two actors — even two very good actors — to fill it?

But we’re quickly reminded that homes contain more than the mere bodies of their inhabitants. We unpack enormous amounts of ourselves among the people we love. We do it intentionally but, under duress, we do it accidentally too. And needless to say, the cubic volume of those half-articulated feelings flows in with unnerving force.

Susan Rome and Jimmy Whalen (Photo: Stan Barouh)

Susan Rome and Jimmy Whalen (Photo: Stan Barouh)

Susan Rome and Jimmy Whalen (who are, indeed, two very good actors) play the coupled protagonists with serene, natural focus. Although their vocations differ greatly — Sophie, the painter, works in colors, while day trader Phillip prefers numbers — they’re both thoughtful, emotionally mature, fairly laid-back people. It’s hard to imagine at first that they’ll hit the combative notes implied by the play’s title.

But in Theater J’s engaging production, with two well-tuned leads guided by some smart direction from Associate Artistic Director Shirley Serotsky, we anticipate the rising tide. Over the course of 90 minutes, Phillip’s big pricey flat (designed by Robbie Hayes) alternately feels too huge and too tiny for its occupants, as playwright Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros’s high-stakes writing proceeds patiently but mercilessly through this newly revised version of her 2005 play. As conversations get uglier (which, in a relationship this heartfelt, means more and more honest), Sophie and Phillip’s world oscillates between a feeling of chill, lonely expanse and crammed-close intimacy.

By promising audiences an Argument, yet taking some generous time during the show’s first half to plant the seeds of a deeper relationship, Gersten-Vassilaros pulls off a nice bit of misdirection. Working from Theater J’s advance notes, we know the play will froth over with heated debate on the topic of abortion. But Gersten-Vassilaros, refreshingly, doesn’t shine the spotlight on the unborn. This domestic drama remains firmly rooted in the mercurial earth of Sophie and Phillip, too old to expect a pregnancy but too new to family-making to figure out what’s best.

The real thrill here doesn’t come from parsing this as a political issue. It comes from watching two people long assured of their actions — she’s 42, he’s 49 — forced to recall a time when they hadn’t the faintest idea what to do. Which, fortunately for us, means that they’ll try anything in order to understand each other. And as the show’s slow-to-boil first half tips smoothly into a race to reconcile, Team Sophie and Team Phillip may experience, more than once, a mixing of their ranks while the clock ticks down.

Recommended
The Argument
Closes November 24, 2013
Theater J
1529 Sixteenth Street, NW
Washington, DC
1 hour, 30 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: $50 – $65
Wednesdays thru Sundays
Details
Tickets
 
Some of the couple’s tactics fail miserably but make for wonderful comedy. Other attempts by Sophie and Phillip to resolve the main question — will she or won’t she keep the pregnancy? — underwhelm not only for their purposes but for ours as well. The main culprit on this point is a therapy session with an obtuse fellow named Herb (earnestly played by the very funny Jefferson A. Russell), which offers a couple of amusing moments but falls too predictably within counseling stereotypes (she’s pushy; he’s slow to understand the exercise) to tie into the stronger, more nuanced surprises of the other scenes.

It’s when these anxious lovers are loosed from the efforts of a third party that Rome and Whalen have the elbow room they need to play dirty. But this isn’t just a nasty bout of sparring. It’s a drama, and a genuinely funny one, about two well-matched, fundamentally different people seeking optimism down two different paths.

Whether those paths will converge in the end takes some thorough exploring. Like a lot of journeys toward home — in this case, the making of a new one — this one must go inward first.

It’s a good play like this, then, that can thrill us with a concept we thought we already knew: that even compatible people are least as different as they are the same.

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The Argument by Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros . Directed by Shirley Serotsky . Featuring Susan Rome, Jimmy Whalen and Jefferson A. Russell . Scenic Design: Robbie Hayes . Lighting Design: Martha Mountain . Costume Design: Erin Nugent . Assoc Set and Props Design: Samina Vieth . Sound Design:  Eric Shimelonis . Production Stage Manager: Roy Gross . Produced by Theater J . Reviewed by Hunter Styles.

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Other reviews

Lisa Traiger . WashingtonJewishWeek
Doug Rule . MetroWeekly
Chris Klimek . City Paper
Nelson Pressley . Washington Post
Missy Frederick . Washingtonian
Benjamin Tomchik . BroadwayWorld
Seth Rose . MDTheatreGuide
David Friscic . DCMetroTheaterArts

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