nytheatre.com review by Matt Freeman
May 22, 2005
Expectation doesn’t do much to help The Argument; it features the formidable talents of Melissa Leo and Jay O. Sanders as the middle-aged couple Sophie and Phillip and a script by Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros, a Pulitzer finalist. As the play opens, Sophie and Phillip are crashing their way awkwardly through a one-night stand. She is 42, he is 49. She is a painter, he is a stock trader. Neither of them has children. They fall, or so they say, in love.
In this play, about a relationship and how it’s lost, there is something I found immediately missing: a sense that something important is happening. Both of these characters are fleshed out with such arbitrary details (he eats Cheerios; she talks about how she can’t eat overcooked pasta) that you can almost hear someone raising their hand in a workshop requesting their inclusion. Beyond this, even as thinly sketched as they are, they are also immediately displayed to be a mismatch.
This comment would be enough to render the play inert, you’d think, but the nature of their relationship quickly takes a backseat when we discover that Sophie is pregnant. At first we’re searching the play for clues as to what makes these two people tick; then deus-ex-pregnancy kicks in and drives a truck through the play. From that point on, the dumbfounding lack of communication, ridiculous discussions, and ungrounded behavior of the two careens the play off the side of the road and leaves it in a ditch.
Perhaps there is a play in Gersten-Vassilaros about how the nature of love or the ability to love is changed by age and experience. Instead, we get this sophomoric argument. Watching an argument on stage can be thrilling if the characters involved have not only stakes, but some sort of middle ground. When the two characters are at such opposite poles, and unable to hear one another, it feels like they are both repeatedly throwing themselves headfirst into a brick wall.
Phillip, for his part, is written as a traditionally-minded, childish man, veering into the realm of the boorish as he gives an extended monologue about fake poop; suddenly the voice of reason in a mystifyingly pointless scene with a therapist; and then, at last, utterly out of his mind. Jay O. Sanders, a fine actor, does the best he can with the material, and tries to find the underlying likeability in Phillip. When we finally hit The Argument itself, in the play's last few scenes, he seems unable to do much but shout.
It’s clear that Gersten-Vassilaros has more sympathy for Sophie. Sophie has some passionate, if slapdash, speeches about art; she is the more idealistic of the two, and I’m sure her passion for her art and resistance to motherhood are intended to be viewed as strengths of some sort. But as she fails to listen, over and over, and re-explains her position in new and stunningly inept ways, failure to communicate turns to self-obsession. Melissa Leo, a fantastic and mature performer, is not at home in the childish Sophie’s skin.
There is also the odd inclusion of a Christopher Durang-lite scene with a couples therapist, who doles out such bizarre new-age tripe that we know he’s not to be taken seriously. That Sophie does and Phillip does not makes the end of the play that much less interesting, when we’re expected to sympathize in a serious way with a woman who becomes the butt of a joke in a single scene. The therapist is played by film and stage veteran John Rothman. He is funny in moments, but ultimately inconsequential. He plays the character as written: a one-note gag.
One would hope that a play with such heavy-hitting actors and so highly-touted a writer could provide more than this uneven and awkwardly plotted mess. The Argument, in the end, is unconvincing.