Rarely have we had a more intimate, more raw or realistically rendered work as The Argument, Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros’ play that’s been such an emotional work-out for all involved, especially the amazing cast and their director, Shirley Serotsky, Associate Artistic Director of our theater. A glimpse into the rehearsal process can be gleaned by this rehearsal photo and the features which have supported it.
This fine Washington Post feature has some wonderful quotes from our playwright, and a longer interview with her can be found here. As we’ve moved into the theater, we’ve gone from sharing this intimate chamber piece with a tiny room of fellow art-makers to almost-fully-packed preview performances where the piece takes on a size, is filled out by hulking set pieces (including not one but two working refrigerators), and where all the other theatrical elements support the primal issues that are laid bare in this initially hopeful and romantic play about two people finding each other and falling in love mid-life.
Midway through, as a disagreement begins to tear at the fabric of their relationship, the dramatic blood pressure begins to rise.
Finally, things get rough. And a fridge gets moved.
Comments shared after preview #1 included:
“This is what theater’s all about!”
That was the first comment during the talk-back.
“The whole production was perfection!”
That was the last comment from the talk-back.
In the middle, profound identification (“this was totally raw, life-like), split allegiances between Phillip and Sophie, appreciation for both the comic relief and the gut wrenching rawness — Oh, and one guy thought the “shit in a can” speech was “totally disgusting!” So not everyone was completely moved.
Our student subscribers took in preview #2. From the comments shared by those 22 or under, I have a feeling we were seeing a generational split. Some intense brush-back or pull-back or alienation from the harsh turn of tone in the play. I’d like to learn more about the variety of responses. And we’ll have a chance to read comments below. My comments — my introduction to how The Argument fits into our vision for our season of “Crucial Questions, Critical Fault-lines, Necessary Conversations” can be found on the jump/next page.
Oh, but one nice thing worth noting: the shit-in-a-can speech, after notes and important adjustments got the laughs we wanted and needed. That’s what previews are all about! Onto previews #3 and #4 this weekend!
Artistic Director’s Statement
We begin with hope. We begin with attraction. We begin with promise and the possibility of renewal. Even at our age, having suffered disappointment, or exasperation, or a few rough-and-tumble disputes in our past, we enter the arena of our adult lives with the palpable sense that a new marriage of differences might be achieved. And so we identify with the attractive, 40-something couple at the center of The Argument. We are both Sophie and we are Phillip; creative and business-minded; independent yet craving new companionship; vested in leaving behind some kind of legacy, yet (some of us, at least) insistent upon the freedom not to be tied to conventional lifestyle or family-tethered choices.
Not only do we see ourselves as individuals in Sophie and Phillip (and both compelling sides of their “debate,” as it is soon to unfold); we are also encouraging theater-goers—indeed our theater company as a whole—to see ourselves as directly involved and touched by this evocative allegory. In other words, this play, seemingly about an utterly secularized New York couple, is in fact a perfect Washington story of political brinksmanship and also a troubling emblem for the scorched earth debates that occasionally divide our Jewish community, indeed with increasing ferocity. Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros’ play, first produced in 2005 and now importantly revised and reconsidered for 2013, has found its moment, as both a taut relationship drama and a haunting personalization of a larger political phenomenon; our inability to staunch the polarization of our once tightly-knit society. We are mortally, brutally injuring each other and The Argument is a heartfelt plea that we return to the therapist’s office to work out our differences; to come to an understanding; to let empathy and reason temper our will to vindicate, vilify and triumph over the other.
And so a caution: there is metaphor at play here, not so much as intended by the playwright, but as suggested by the placement of the playwright’s play here, in DC, in this Center with us, at this very moment. There is a private dispute between lovers that winds up speaking for a larger public drama gripping our nation and the Jewish community at large. And all the while, our culture’s been very quiet—which is to say timid, or reluctant—about engaging in the most important of third-rail debates; in this case, about abortion. It’s just too divisive. So Hollywood’s shied away. So has the theater. This is Theater J’s way of not shying away; of holding up a mirror to a most intimate relationship and seeing the wound that’s been wrought by people who love(d) each other. We have it within us to lay waste to the field where we once played; to engage in vituperative battle; or we can seek more ameliorative measures. Even when we grapple with Solomonic justice, which is to say deeply difficult choices and compromises, there must be a way out of the stalemate, the end-game debate.
Our government’s been shut down for over 11 days and counting as we write these words and rehearse this play, as we collectively wait for one party to give an inch and the other to accept. But accepting compromise is well-nigh impossible when both sides feel they are resolutely correct and certain of that rightness. Our playwright ingeniously holds out a solution; there is a way out of this Gordian Knot. Are we brave enough to take it? Can Sophie and Phillip bend sufficiently, softened by empathy? If one of them should falter, will the other be there to support, or to pronounce victory?
There is a hoped-for ending to this play. How would you envision it? How will we write that resolution as a society?