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Theater Review: “The Argument” at Theater J

An age-old moral dilemma forms the basis of this entertaining but frustrating new adaptation.

Susan Rome and James Whalen in The Argument. Photograph by Stan Barouh.

Finding something new to say about a hot-button topic such as abortion that has been talked to death for decades is clearly a challenge. Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros manages to sidestep the challenge by making her play, The Argument, entirely about the personal consequences for two characters and their relationship, rather than the ideological stances behind the debate. In this new adaptation of the work, which first premiered in 2005, the result is a lot more interesting than a political polemic, even if the play’s conclusion is less than satisfying.

Theater J’s play, crisply directed by Shirley Serotsky, opens on a far less heavy note. An older couple is in the middle of what could be a one-night stand, and their coupling, set to jaunty music, is fervent, klutzy, and entirely relatable. It turns out Sophie (Susan Rome), a painter with a strong independent streak, and Phillip (James Whalen), a commodities trader grappling with his father’s recent death, connect right away despite their differences. Ten months later, the play finds them living together and still starry-eyed (Robbie Hayes’s set does a nice job of showing how a woman’s influence subtly changes Phillip’s bachelor pad). Then Sophie discovers she’s pregnant.

Unplanned late-in-life pregnancies (Sophie is 42, Phillip 49) don’t tend to be explored as much in popular culture as, say, the woes of a troubled teen or a woman just embarking on a fulfilling career. Sophie’s circumstances probably won’t engender much sympathy among fervent anti-abortion folks, but that doesn’t mean her feelings aren’t worth regarding. Her expressions of doubt make for an interesting spin on the child-free-versus-motherhood debate in current popular culture. There’s the wrinkle that motherhood at this point isn’t an abstract concept—it’s looming—and that’s a fact that Phillip, who desperately wants the child, can’t get past. Their different views wreak havoc on their relationship, even as they turn to a cliché-spouting therapist (Jefferson A. Russell, who has great comic timing but is straddled with a character who feels more like a device).

Neither Sophie nor Phillip is a perfect person, or necessarily the first person you’d connect with at a cocktail party. But Rome and Whalen take their realistically flawed characters and make them charming and sympathetic with their confident, effortless performances. Rome is radiant in the shy, early stages of love; Whalen embodies the kind of regular guy who makes a dashing first impression. They may not be the most traditionally compatible couple, but it’s hard not to root for their relationship to survive such a damaging blow.

The tension between the pair ratchets up as Rome’s doctor appointment draws closer, and it’s at this point that The Argument is at its most suspenseful and harrowing. When a play tries this hard to avoid taking sides, it’s not surprising that the ending is ambiguous. But when a show fails to provide not only ideological resolution, but also any dramatic resolution, the results are still frustrating.

The Argument is at Theater J through November 24. Running time is 85 minutes, with no intermission. Tickets ($35 to $65) are available via Theater J’s website.