He is stocky and emotionally inexpressive and works as an investment banker. She is slender and prone to verbose confessions and paints for a living. From the beginning of The Argument, we know these middle-aged lovers have little in common. We also know (as the title indicates) where their relationship is headed. Falling squarely in the breakup genre, The Argument doesn’t pretend to offer dramatic suspense. Phillip (Jay O. Sanders) and Sophie (Melissa Leo) are introduced groping wildly as they fall into bed. A couple of elliptical leaps later, they’ve shacked up together in his Manhattan pad. Their petty squabbling becomes a full-scale bust-up when Sophie announces she’s pregnant—and that she’s having an abortion. A tale of a messy romantic meltdown, The Argument is itself a messy creation, unevenly mixing loud domestic warfare with even louder gender politicking.
Playwright Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros creates a few moments of convincing naturalism: the awkward postcoital pas de deux of the first scene, Phillip’s never ending golf anecdote that drives Sophie crazy, and (my favorite) the heroine’s futile search for a cell phone signal in her apartment. Acting up a storm in an anemic role, Leo is a full-body performer, punctuating her lines with limby flourishes. By contrast, the hulking Sanders is reliably stolid and clueless. Are they meant to be gender archetypes? The play is indecisive about this and many things. Initially content to be a character study, The Argument morphs into an ungainly polemic about Sophie’s reproductive choices. Phillip boorishly insists that they have the child, while Sophie fights back, insisting that children “turn lovers into relatives.” The play becomes intensely physical as the couple hunkers down for all-out battle. In the end, their exhaustion may be all too palpable for an audience worn down by the play’s thematic schizophrenia.