Conflict is at the heart of Theater J’s production of ‘The Argument’

(Stan Barouh) - Susan Rome and James Whalen in “The Argument” at Theater J.

(Stan Barouh) - Susan Rome and James Whalen in “The Argument” at Theater J.

It is tempting to contrast “The Argument” at Theater J with its spiritual sister, “The Night Watcher,” just two blocks away at the Studio Theatre. In writer-performer Charlayne Woodard’s solo “The Night Watcher,” the actress tells how, at a critical moment, she and her husband of many years agreed that they didn’t want to have kids. In the fictional “The Argument,” another woman has to fight for that same right, because the man in her life badly wants the child she’s unexpectedly carrying.

So “The Argument” is an abortion play, which makes Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros’s drama as polarizing as “The Night Watcher” is galvanizing. “ The Night Watcher ” shows Woodard learning to shepherd a legion of nieces, nephews and godchildren, whereas “The Argument” watches two supposedly mature people — played with warm empathy that spins into cold ferocity by Susan Rome and James Whalen — claw each other to bits.

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To be clear, Gersten-Vassilaros — who with “Smash” creator Theresa Rebeck co-wrote one of the most probing post-9/11 dramas in “Omnium Gatherum,” a Pulitzer finalist in 2004 — is hardly serving up a politically framed issue play. “The Argument,” which premiered in 2005 and has been revised for this new production at Theater J, opens not with a pronouncement, but with a man and a woman bursting into an apartment, where they proceed, very entertainingly, to rip each other’s clothes off.

Over the swift 90-minute show’s first half-hour, 10 months pass in the lives of Sophie, a 42-year-old artist, and Phillip, a 49-year-old Wall Streeter. They talk. They fall in love. They set up house in Phillip’s Manhattan apartment, bonding over a big new refrigerator. We like them both.

This low-key stretch is managed with a savvy eye by director Shirley Serotsky. Rome and Whalen play it cool and sound sensible. Robbie Hayes’s set feels real, and so do the everyday costumes — everything from underwear to jeans and suits — by Erin Nugent.

It’s unpressured and genuine, which seems pivotal to Gersten-Vassilaros. By the time Phillip stumbles across the positive result of a home pregnancy test, the issue isn’t dry and abstract. To them, and to us, it’s already flesh and blood.

Or is it?

What happens to “The Argument” right now might not happen anywhere else, or at any other time. As Sophie and Phillip debate, then dig in, then bicker with the pedal to the metal, it’s impossible for Washingtonians not to experience unnerving flashbacks of the recent absurd death clinch that was the federal government shutdown. Also on the minds of Theater J audiences will be the flap over whether to fully produce a controversial Israeli play called “The Admission” next spring, something the company — the resident theater within the D.C. Jewish Community Center — pulled back from last month.

Oh, and Israelis and Palestinians still don’t get along.

That’s a lot of freight for such an easygoing, often funny play. The show reaches a high point during a sharply satiric scene as Sophie and Phillip give therapy a try, only to have the therapist’s mealy mouthed approach (hilariously delivered by Jefferson A. Russell) get blown up by their unstoppable immediate needs.

But it’s tough to keep abortion in the background, and audiences may find it hard not to take whatever side they already prefer as Sophie and Phillip press their cases. Gersten-Vassilaros loads the dice a bit in favor of Sophie, particularly when Phillip pulls a highly dramatic, unforgivable (and slightly unbelievable) stunt near the end of their epic, full-throated fight. The last 20 minutes can be borne only if you can shove abortion off the table and consider the show in one of its many potential metaphorical lights.

Perhaps you’ll disagree. Shall we fight about that?

The Argument

by Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros. Directed by Shirley Serotsky. Lights, Martha Mountain; sound design, Eric Shimelonis. About 85 minutes. Tickets $25-$60. Through Nov. 24 at Theater J, in the D.C. Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th St. NW. Call 800-494-8497, or visit www.washingtondcjcc.org.

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