Jay O. Sanders and Melissa Leo in The Argument
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Jay O. Sanders and Melissa Leo in The Argument
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Every couple -- straight or gay, married or unmarried -- has arguments. (Why didn't you squeeze the toothpaste tube from the bottom? Why are we visiting your mother again?) But few arguments are as life-changing and relationship-threatening as the one had by Phillip and Sophie, the pair at the center of Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros' The Argument: Whether or not to keep the baby that Sophie unexpectedly finds herself carrying.

This pregnant plot twist occurs about halfway through the play, which until that point is a pleasant if rather banal slice-of-life comedy, and it's as much a surprise for the audience as it is for the onstage pair. As we learn in a well-written first scene that takes place on the night of the characters' first meeting at a party, Phillip (Jay O. Sanders) is 49, divorced, and childless, while Sophie is 42 and ditto, ditto. Because they appear to be an odd match -- he's a seemingly down-to-earth commodities trader, she's a somewhat high-strung artist -- we wouldn't be surprised if the argument to which the title refers were to occur on their first night together (or the morning after): a confrontation about politics or literature or whatever.

But no. Ten months later, the pair are blissfully cohabitating in Neil Patel's realistic interpretation of Phillip's minimally furnished, post-divorce bachelor pad. They react as giddily to the arrival of a brand new Viking refrigerator -- bought by Sophie with money that she earned by selling a painting -- as they would to the arrival of a new baby. This same day, Sophie has learned that she might be pregnant, her diaphragm having malfunctioned; but she wasn't necessarily planning to tell Phillip, who has returned early from a business trip. Committed not just to her career as an artist but also to her long-ago choice to eschew the pleasures and pains of motherhood, Sophie eventually comes to a seemingly unshakeable decision.

Phillip's overwhelming desire for Sophie to have the child notches the play into high gear. A visit to a therapist (nicely played by John Rothman) is engineered by Sophie to help convince Phillip that her decision is the right one, but it goes terribly awry, and the drastic action that he subsequently takes in order to maker her see things from his perspective is quite shocking. But is it really believable? Gersten-Vassilaros asks us to take a large leap of faith. Has the couple never before discussed the possibility of having a child? Why would Sophie use a diaphragm in a monogamous relationship unless she wanted to avoid pregnancy?

Although Phillip and Sophie are not bad people -- many of us could imagine them being our friends -- neither character fully engenders our sympathies. He's a tad boorish, she's a bit pretentious. In the end, their argument is far more compelling for their representative positions than for our concern over its actual outcome, which the playwright leaves deliberately ambiguous. Yet it's impossible not to leave the theater thinking -- and, depending on who you're with, loudly arguing -- about the ever-controversial issue of a woman's right to choose. When it comes to abortion, love cannot always conquer all. As the playwright points out, even the most rational people can become irrational when this subject rears its head, and faith is often thicker than blood.

Director Maria Mileaf, who did excellent work earlier this season on the superior two-hander Going to St. Ives, puts the actors through their paces quite skillfully. Sanders, last seen in New York as a jovial Falstaff in Lone Star Love, is a potent combination of teddy bear and grizzly bear. Leo -- who is known to TV fans as Sgt. Kay Howard in the series Homicide, to moviegoers for her superb performance as Benicio del Toro's wife in the Oscar-nominated 21 Grams, and to New York theatergoers for her Drama Desk-winning work in last season's The Distance From Here -- is a blazingly intelligent actress who always gives 110 percent to every characterization. There can be no argument that it's great to have her back on the New York stage.