It takes guts to title your play The Argument. You're inviting images of flying furniture, flying fists, vicious invective, and - who knows? - maybe even some insight. But if that's what you're calling your show, you'd better deliver, and with her new play The Argument, at the Vineyard, Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros does. After about an hour.
Until then, though, you won't see any paint peeling from a furious back-and-forth onstage; the sensation is more akin to watching paint dry. I couldn't tell from my vantage point exactly what set designer Neil Patel had demanded the walls of his smart apartment set be painted with, but I longed for him to appear with a roller and a few cans of high-gloss latex, and take the show to the next level. That didn't happen, of course.
Boring plays, though, do happen, even to the best writers. Gersten-Vassilaros isn't exactly in that category, but she demonstrated with 2003's Omnium Gatherum (which she wrote with Theresa Rebeck) an ability to make multiple viewpoints about complex topics theatrically compelling. Here, though, she's written a play about the potentially divisive issue of abortion without injecting much social relevance, thought, or humor. That's a transgression that's especially hard to brush aside in the wake of John Patrick Shanley's Doubt, which finds more facets and uncertainties in a Catholic priest's potential abuse of a child than most imagined possible.
Facets aren't easily offered up here. After freewheeling artist Sophie (Melissa Leo) and less freewheeling commodity trader Phillip (Jay O. Sanders) sleep together and begin living together in his apartment, she gets pregnant. She doesn't want the baby; he does. They dance around the issue and eventually end up with a marriage counselor (John Rothman) who can't help them - neither is willing to budge. Phillip storms out, and the action returns to the apartment, where - finally - the couple address their disagreement with shouting, shoving, furniture moving, and a variety of other, similar tactics.
This isn't strictly required from a dramatic standpoint. Were the characters lively or provocative in their discussions throughout the rest of the play, it might even prove anticlimactic, a representation of something that's already been stated and restated in a number of different ways. But after Phillip's interminable monologue about practical joking on the golf course, Sophie's pained and drawn-out rationalization of her position (which amounts to "I'd be inconvenienced"), and Phillip's response (essentially "No, you wouldn't be"), action or excitement of any sort is welcome.
The dialogue doesn't improve noticeably when the two really start going at it; if it's as shallow as before, it's a more interesting shallow. (Him to her: "All I'm asking you to do is to embrace the reality of the child that is here, right here!" Her to him: "I'm not relating to this as a child." You get the idea.) But at least the change in tone makes the show more fun to watch; Gersten-Vassilaros and director Maria Mileaf also continue to build the tension throughout the scene, so that - for the first time all evening - you don't feel as if the play is going nowhere.
This does wonders for Sanders and Leo. Neither makes the slightest impression in the first half of the show, and each lets the by-the-numbers writing impede any significant characterization. But when the two are provided with actual conflict and emotions to play, their characters spring to life and become the detailed, specific people who should be arguing about topics like this. Some moral and ethical shading even creeps into their performances, too, making them even more like people and less like symbolic representations of opposing ideologies. (Rothman, whose role consists of little beyond spewing feel-good psychobabble, is considerably less fortunate.)
But even if you get the impression (as I didn't) that abortion is an issue Gersten-Vassilaros feels strongly about, the show lacks the dramatic and intellectual heft necessary to be anything more than a stultifying time-waster. She's less interested in challenging people's opinions than encouraging us to examine the way those opinions are formed and how they're expressed. Her argument in The Argument is ultimately for an end to extremism; she even hints - in the play's final moments - that it can only lead to tragedy. That's not a bad message for our time, but good luck staying awake long enough to hear it.