New York City Theater
Vineyard Theatre, Manhattan
Given the writing credentials of playwright Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros, one expects her new play at the Vineyard to be very special. (She was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for “Omnium Gatherum,” which she co-wrote with Theresa Rebeck.) But, alas, “The Argument” turns out to be a predictable, pedestrian work. This story of a marriage, from steamy beginnings to ultimate disenchantment—with all the steps between—is all too familiar. One has seen this theme played out far more effectively, in the works of Shakespeare or Strindberg or Edward Albee.
The play moves from the wordless opening scene, where the couple (Phillip and Sophie) can hardly wait to have sex, as they fall through the front door. They have just met that evening at a party. At best, this is a commentary on our own current mores, where the sexual act precedes friendship or even a superficial acquaintanceship. “How do I know I’ll like you?” Sophie asks the next morning. And indeed, as they begin to live together, their divergence of interests and values grow all too apparent.
Ultimately, the relationship falls apart over the issue of abortion (though the playwright might have used any other issue to that purpose). But, specifically, the pregnant Sophie decides she does not want to become a mother, and opts for abortion, while anti-abortionist Phillip sees human life beginning at the moment of conception.
The irritating thing about this play is that Sophie never for a moment wants to discuss the issue, forcing Phillip to take drastic steps to make her listen. On the plus side, Gersten-Vassilaros gets off a good line here and there, as when a character says, “Let’s not make hurting each other impossible to resist.” And the play does build steadily in intensity, as the stakes grow ever higher.
But even more at fault is the production itself, under Maria Mileaf’s direction. Mileaf’s first error is in casting (or shall we blame casting director Cindy Tolan?). Jay O. Sanders as the male lead is too heavy, ponderous, balding, unsexy, and—let’s admit it—old! We do not believe for a moment that Sophie saw him across the crowded room and fell immediately in lust. Sophie (Melissa Leo), on the other hand, is a waif-like artist who could easily be a 40’s New York single woman. But, to compound the problems, both Leo and Sanders over-act dreadfully, creating less believability with each exaggerated gesture. One suspects, however, that each of these actors, in the right play and under proper direction, could give good account of themselves.
All told, this play is unworthy of a Vineyard production, given the theater’s long history of fine and innovative work. Frankly, there is no good argument to justify “The Argument.”
-- Irene Backalenick
May 24, 2005