When it comes to verbal altercations, there’s a productive way to fight and a fruitless way, according to playwright Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros. On one side, there’s open-minded give-and-take and, on the other, gridlock wrought by stubbornness. It may go without saying, but the government shutdown has been a classic example of the latter.
“I think we should be taught conflict resolution in grade school. I think saying, ‘I can see how you feel’ is a great power,” Gersten-Vassilaros said during a recent visit to Washington from her home in New York. “To say, ‘I reject how you feel and it’s wrong and it’s going to bring us all down, it’s going to ruin us’ is a rejection of the people you share the planet with. And I don’t know what you’re supposed to do with that. It’s the most uncreative impulse I can imagine.”
The various approaches to conflict became an inspiration for Gersten-Vassilaros in 2005 when she wrote “The Argument,” which consists almost entirely of one epic quarrel. Susan Rome and James Whalen play Sophie and Phillip, a 40-something couple enjoying the giddy buzz of new romance when Sophie realizes she’s pregnant. The titular conundrum is whether to have the baby or not. Free-spirited artist Sophie is leaning toward getting an abortion, while Phillip realizes he wants desperately to be a father.
The central issue in “The Argument,” opening at Theater J next week, is all the more complicated by a simple fact: There can be no compromise.
“It’s certainly not meant to present one side or the other about the political issue [of abortion],” said director Shirley Serotsky, who’s also the theater’s associate artistic director. “They’re not arguing politics at all, they just need to do what they need to do . . . and yet they want to keep this love that they’ve found.”
Given that Gersten-Vassilaros wrote the play eight years ago, some references to busy signals were dated, while more recent social media and the recession (Phillip works in finance) were absent. So Theater J offered the playwright a unique opportunity to update the script. Gersten-Vassilaros described the call as a dream, and she visited the District earlier this year for a workshop with Serotsky and the cast.
Gersten-Vassilaros came to the meeting without any big agenda or preconceived notions, according to Serotsky.
“The second day, Jimmy and [actor] Jefferson [Russell, the play’s only other actor] and I felt a lot more open about giving our opinions,” said Rome, who plays Sophie. “We felt heard and there were some changes made, and Alex was so receptive and so great . . . she’s a very generous playwright in that way.”
Returning to the play after a long hiatus, Gersten-Vassilaros was eager to make edits, and she wanted to streamline the text. The play boils 10 months of a relationship down to less than 90 minutes.
“I just hope that when people come and see the play, they leave wanting to talk about it, and they talk about it with an open heart,” Rome said. “They see both of the people’s perspectives and see that both people in the relationship onstage are right. That just because Phillip is right doesn’t mean Sophie is wrong, and just because Sophie feels that she is right, it doesn't mean that Phillip is wrong.”
Gersten-Vassilaros and Rome, both of whom are mothers, sympathize with Sophie’s plight and appreciate her attempts to be rational, even though the character’s impulse is different from their own.
“To hold contradictions is a mercy,” Gersten-Vassilaros said. “It’s why humanity can adapt, we can grow, we can include. But if we don’t practice doing that, then we’re in trouble. Just look what’s happening now.”
Wednesday through Nov. 24. Theater J,
1529 16th St. NW. 202-518-9400. www.washingtondcjcc.org. $25-$65; pay-what-you-can previews Wednesday and Thursday.