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The Argument

Phillip, children turn lovers into relatives
---Sophie, making a point in her argument against introducing a child into their not so young lives (she's 42 and he's 49)
Melissa Leo in The Argument
Melissa Leo
(Photo: Carol Rosegg )
About fifteen minutes into Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros' talky new play, I found myself thinking about a couple my husband and I used to be friendly with. Used to be -- because our discomfort and boredom at being exposed to their constant bickering and arguments gradually outweighed any pleasures derived from their company.

Like my ex-friends, Sophie (Melissa Leo) and Philip (Jay O. Sanders), the couple who argue their way through most of this world premiere's ninety minutes, quickly made my eyes glaze over. Things begin promisingly enough with one of those steamy openings where a man and woman announce themselves with considerable heavy breathing and then materialize for us to watch them move from passionate smooching to getting undressed and under the sheets. But the ensuing events provide little in the way of sparkling, solid character development or ideas to make us care whether this passionate first date can lead to an enduring relationship.

The playwright's own argument seems to be for people to open their ears rather than lock themselves into opposite sides of an argument and thus insuring a no-win resolution. To examine this not particularly novel theme, she introduces an unanticipated crisis into the still young relationship of two not so young lovers -- she a successful (but not wildly so) artist and he a big bucks earning commodities trader. Both are survivors of the relationship wars and their coming together represents a second chance at a meaningful connection.

The play's argument prompting crisis comes after Sophie and Phillip have been living together for almost a year and she accidentally becomes pregnant -- something he welcomes and she does not. And so, it's on to a timely but tedious debate as to whether she should have the baby.

The many women in their forties who've gone through endless painful and expensive fertility treatments would consider Sophie's pregnancy after one birth control oversight a glorious miracle. Anyone who's been down that road, or been close to someone who has, will find it hard to feel much sympathy for Sophie's whining about how her "body feels ambivalent" about being pregnant and her corny farm metaphor to explain what she perceives as the tediousness of motherhood ("a child. . .is like a farm. . .It's waking up every morning, crack of dawn, winter and summer, seven days a week to plant. . .alert to all the things that could ever possibly interrupt the harvest"). Melisso Leo's often frenzied intensity does little to increase this character's likability quotient. And while Jay T. Sanders' Phillip is more sympathetic, his excruciatingly drawn-out golf anecdote and an interchange about who was responsible for the birth control slipup make it clear that even without the baby crisis, this couple has too little in common to hold them together if the sexual attraction that brought them together ever wanes.

To convey the intensity of the situation, the playwright introduces a scene with a jargon-spouting psychotherapist but even the ever reliable John Rothman can't make this more than mildly amusing. The fuss involved in shifting the scene from Phillip's and now Phillip and Sophie's apartment to that one scene in the therapist's office is a case of the game not being worth the candle. In fact, the staging overall is too busy, with some scenes shorter than the intra-scene blackouts in which prop movers are seen flying around the stage. Maria Mileaf is clearly not at her best here, as she was earlier in the season when she directed Going to St. Ives.

The play's deliberately ambiguous end is supposed to leave the viewer to think through the ramifications of arguments put forth on their own. Actually, the large painting of three large trees added to the rather bare walls of Phillip's apartment -- supposedly by Sophie, but in fact on loan by an artist named Kathryn Lynch -- clarifies everything. As those trees are barren and leafless, so are these characters and their relationship.

Written by Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros
Directed by Maria Mileaf
Cast: Melissa Leo, Jay O. Sanders and John Rothman.
Costume Design: Katherine Roth
Lighting Design: David Lander
Original Music & Sound Design: Obadiah Eaves
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission.
Vineyard Theatre 108 East 15th Street,212-353-0303 or
From 5/14/05; opening 5/25/05.
Tuesdays-Fridays at 8pm; Saturdays at 3pm and 8pm; Sundays at 3pm.
Tickets: $50
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 5/25/05 performance
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