The lettuce-winnowing is a giveaway.
Spouses Theo and Kevin are preparing for a dinner party in the opening moments of Ken Urban’s “The Remains.” The lasagna is made; the wine is corkscrew-ready; and the open kitchen/dining room — with its granite countertops and glossy floorboards — is worthy of a shelter-magazine photo spread. But you can tell that something is amiss from the way Theo handles the salad fixings. Staring down at the plastic container, he grabs clumsy fistfuls of greens, twitchily tossing spoiled leaves aside. Not only is his expression morose: His very hand movements express chagrin.
The sequence is an early taste of the knockout acting in this Studio Theatre world premiere, an absorbing and meticulously crafted but — until a last-minute twist — conventional naturalistic portrait of a marriage on the rocks. Theo (Glenn Fitzgerald) and Kevin (Maulik Pancholy) were among the first same-sex couples to legally marry in Massachusetts in 2004. Ten years later, they are throwing a dinner party for the purposes of announcing their impending divorce. (Wilson Chin’s pitch-perfect set reinforces the theme of souring domesticity.) The news shocks their guests — Kevin’s sister and Theo’s parents — and the lasagna-and-salad menu yields to a smorgasbord of argument, disappointment, recrimination and long-suppressed secrets.
Playwright Urban and director David Muse display faultless understanding of how interpersonal tensions and rhythms shift over minutes and years: “The Remains” will spark recognition in anyone who has ever had a long-term relationship — or endured a tense family dinner. The play is also well-stocked with humor, which the actors expertly exploit. Danielle Skraastad is a winning blast of abrasiveness as Kevin’s rough-diamond sister, Andrea. And Naomi Jacobson is very funny as Theo’s opinionated mother, Trish. (“No socks to bed. It’s a game-changer,” Trish enthuses of a recent sleep-related epiphany.)
The excellent Pancholy (NBC’s “30 Rock,” etc.) anchors funny moments — one involves a mouthful of lasagna — but he more often bolsters the play’s poignancy, deploying a reticent bearing and spot-on expressions that speak volumes about his character’s inner life. Kevin is an up-and-coming literature professor who has reluctantly accepted tenure at a less-than-prestigious university: Asked to describe his students, he flashes a fleeting, exasperated, glassy-eyed look that says it all.
Kevin’s academic focus has been the writing of Kierkegaard, while Theo’s father, Len (a wry Greg Mullavey), is a philosophy professor who has specialized in the work of Hegel. These plot points allow the conversation to drift occasionally toward topics like Hegel’s and Kierkegaard’s theories of tragedy, which touch on the predicament of choice. Such exchanges — not especially subtly — widen the play’s scope, mapping Kevin and Theo’s personal unhappiness onto the more sweeping canvas of ethics.
This intellectual broadening notwithstanding, the subject of marital disillusionment is not exactly new, and the play’s dramatic 11th-hour turn (no spoilers here) can’t quite keep the story from seeming overfamiliar. (Kevin and Theo’s marriage may have been historic, with a political aspect, but it is first and foremost a marriage.) Still, the top-tier execution, including the acting, is likely to make many theatergoers glad to remain with “The Remains.”
The Remains, by Ken Urban. Directed by David Muse; costume design, Ásta Bennie Hostetter; lighting, Jesse Belsky; sound, Matthew Nielson. About 90 minutes. Tickets: $20-$85. Through June 17 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. studiotheatre.org or 202-332-3300.