Theater J’s ‘Argument’ confronts abortion

Sophie (Susan Rome) and Phillip (James Whalen) have breakfast in bed in The Argument at the DCJCC. Photo by Stan Barouh
Sophie (Susan Rome) and Phillip (James Whalen) have breakfast in bed in The Argument at the DCJCC.
Photo by Stan Barouh

There’s an argument going on at Theater J, the provocative resident theater company housed at the Washington DC Jewish Community Center. No, it’s not the fight about producing Israeli playwright Motti Lerner’s latest — The Admission — a fictionalized revisionist historical drama based on a 1948 alleged massacre in an Arab village by Israeli soldiers. That argument, instigated by a minor group of pro-Zionists in the area, has been settled. Theater J artistic director Ari Roth agreed to pull back a full-scale production of the play and instead produce a “scaled back three-week workshop presentation,” to assuage the combative fringe group of hyper-vigilant, pro-Israel activists, who have called for censoring the award-winning theater company on previous occasions.

No, the current argument taking place on the Aaron and Cecile Goldman Theater stage tackles another hotly contested political issue — something that frequent patrons to Theater J have come to expect. This time, though, it’s not another round of pro-Israel versus pro-Arab sentiments in the hot seat. This time it’s the personal that has become political and it’s among the most incendiary issues being debated across the American political landscape. In Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros’ play The Argument, the issue at hand is abortion.

In this handsome intermissionless 90-minute production, confidently directed by Theater J artistic associate Shirley Serotsky, we initially meet Sophie and Phillip (the exquisite Susan Rome and attractive James Whalen) as they proceed to frantically undress one another in the throes of a one-night stand. The amusing choreography of this opening gambit, with its lighthearted, sexy escapades belies the serious nature of what will come.

Shortly, Sophie and Phillip’s one-night stand becomes a relationship. These 40somethings begin navigating the ups and downs of living together: James, the commodity trader, and Sophie, the artist, have their clashes and their moments of intimacy as life goes on. And then, the other shoe drops. Sophie becomes pregnant, but has no intention of seeing the pregnancy through to childbirth.

As serious as the question of abortion is, playwright Gersten-Vassilaros puts to use her wickedly funny streak in a scene that takes down the sometimes ridiculous practices of the psychological industrial complex. Satirizing the stilted conversation and outlandish rules of sharing one’s feelings under the watchful eye of psychologist Herb — an overly serious and pompous Jefferson Russell — adds enough comic relief to the high-strung nature of this debate to keep the audience engaged. The no-holds-barred conversation between Sophie and Phillip raises questions of whose right is it to proceed with or end a pregnancy, as well as the unsettling likelihood that once a woman is over 40, her child may be born with disabilities of varying severity. Does and should Phillip have any say in the matter? And, in this case, are his reasons for wanting this surprise potential child enough?

Gersten-Vassilaros doesn’t shrink from the incendiary issues that arise in a full-on debate over abortion. And in this case, because we’ve come to really like these characters in a brief 90 minutes, which unravels in the attractive Manhattan apartment set by designer Robbie Hayes, the possible solutions provide neither easy nor pat answers. And that’s the point. Debating a topic like abortion results in no winners or losers. The end game is one with neither right nor wrong answers and that’s how Gersten-Vassilaros leaves us: with more questions than resolutions.

Don’t attend this production without a willingness to engage in a significant after-show discussion of the pros and cons that the characters put forth. That’s what Theater J intends: To ask the provocative questions and let its viewers ask crucial questions to wrestle with the moral issues without providing answers.

The Argument is onstage through Nov. 24 at the DCJCC. Tickets, at $35-$65, are available by calling 800-494-8497 or visiting

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