In June 2015, as marriage equality dawned over the entire United States, Ken Urban’s marriage was coming to an end. The playwright filed for divorce from the man who had been his partner for 18 years, just as the nation celebrated the Supreme Court’s milestone Obergefell v. Hodges decision recognizing every gay American’s legal right to marry.
Ever the artist, Urban tied together the strains of triumph and loss to write a play reflecting his experience as a gay man in a troubled marriage. The result, The Remains, a drama that crackles with barbed humor and raw emotion, is now in the midst of a world-premiere run at the Studio Theatre.
In it, Maulik Pancholy and Glenn Fitzgerald capture partners — Kevin and Theo — who love each other, but who also are devastatingly close to the end. The actors both bare intense vulnerability, while still garnering laughs.
With an ensemble completed by Naomi Jacobson and Greg Mullavey as Theo’s parents, and Danielle Skraastad as Kevin’s adopted sister, the entire extended family confront the couple’s marital troubles head-on in a real-time dinner party. The banter entertains, as the play also reflects how personal adversity and cultural progress converge in the story of this gay marriage.
Early in the development of The Remains, Urban shared the script with Pancholy, whom he had always envisioned playing Kevin. Nationally known for his TV roles on 30 Rock and Weeds, Pancholy, who has been married to Ryan Corvaia since 2014, was immediately struck by the play and brought it to Studio Theatre’s artistic director David Muse.
“I reconnected with David when I was down here doing Taming of the Shrew [at the Shakespeare Theatre Company],” says Pancholy. “Dave and I went to grad school together at Yale Drama. We did so many shows together, but we had not worked together professionally in the fifteen years since we graduated. Our lives went in different directions. I was like, ‘I thought this would be a great play for you and for Studio.’ I sent it to him, and we chatted about it, and I think he fell in love with it and was like, let’s do it — which is pretty incredible, when you think about theater seasons and the way they’re programmed. The fact that he jumped on it so quickly was such a gift.”
Muse agrees that the timing worked out well for mounting The Remains, acknowledging that the conversation about marriage equality has evolved greatly in the few years since the Supreme Court decision.
“The play is really interesting to us because it’s like a ‘next gen’ gay play,” Muse says. “This is not a play that one could have really staged five years ago, because then it was time to either advocate for an advance in civil rights or celebrate that advance. So the idea that you could do a play that was investigating this, it feels very much like a play for now, like now we are far enough post-overhaul that we can investigate these issues and open them up and look at some contradictions that we weren’t talking about years ago.”
Muse adds that one of the main reasons he opted to helm The Remains is due to his past experiences working with Pancholy.
“When we were at school, he acted in more of the plays I directed than anybody else,” Muse says. “He’s a big part of the reason why I’m doing this.”
Pancholy relished the opportunity to collaborate again with Muse. Yet the actor, who once served on President Obama’s hand-picked Advisory Commission on Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders, also reveals he’s excited to bring a lead Indian-American character to the stage, pointing out that inclusive casting hasn’t always been the norm.
“I remember my first year [at Yale] they did a play at the Yale Rep that had a lead Indian-American character,” he says. “They cast a non-Indian actor from New York to play it. I’m like, ‘I’m here,’ and they were like, ‘There’s a rule that in your first six months of school, you’re not allowed to be in a performance.’ For me to have to sit there and watch that happening felt really uncomfortable.”
But Pancholy feels the patterns shifting.
“I feel like there’s two potential ideal worlds. There’s the ideal world where we always cast the right people to play the right parts, and then there’s a world where because we’re so open and diverse and we’re telling enough stories, that it doesn’t necessarily matter. People could play different parts.
“But we don’t have that kind of representation right now. That’s what I like about Indian-American actors onstage. It’s like, if the part is written Indian-American, I feel like an Indian-American actor should get that opportunity. We have stories that we need to tell.”
METRO WEEKLY: How did you first encounter The Remains?
MAULIK PANCHOLY: I’ve known the playwright Ken Urban for a long time now. I did a play of his in 2009 called The Happy Sad, which was at the Summer Play Festival at the Public Theater. It was super fun. The cast was crazy. Ari Graynor was in it, Eddie Kaye Thomas was in it, Trip Cullman directed it. He’s directed Lobby Hero on Broadway. That was the first time I met Ken, and we just became pretty good friends.
Then a couple years ago, he wrote this play based on his own experience of the divorce that he went through with his ex-husband. He wrote it based on that, but he also wrote it with me in mind to play the character that I’m playing now, even though obviously I didn’t factor into their divorce in any way. I went to his agent’s office and we did a reading of it just for him to hear it. That was my first introduction to the play. Then Ken got invited to workshop it at The Playwright Center in Minneapolis. He was like, “Will you come out for a week and do this workshop?” At the end of that workshop, we did two live readings. We had an audience of 40 or 50 people each night. That was when I really started to understand the play, and the audience, pretty much like what’s happening in D.C., was laughing so hard throughout the first half of the play and then weeping on the way out. I was like, “This is a great play.”
MW: Was the couple always written as interracial?
PANCHOLY: Yes. The character being Indian was always in the play. I think Ken had it in the back of his mind that he wanted me to play this part. That’s what he’s told me anyway.
MW: Is it important for you to portray that aspect of the relationship?
PANCHOLY: I think so. It’s nice to have a real-looking couple onstage, that we are interracial, that my character’s supposed to be in his late 30s and Theo’s in his early 40s. They’re human beings, they’re real people. I think it’s important that we reflect diversity onstage. I also think it’s important to the story, because I think one of the things Ken is playing with, or at least the way I see it, is discussing these ideas of tragedy.
Kierkegaard, who my character is in love with, talks about this notion of ancient tragedy, like the Greeks, and that there was this idea that you can’t escape things about your family, that you inherit things from your family or from the gods, and that creates tragedy. One of the things I find interesting about this play is that Theo has a very different family life than Kevin — and Kevin, being adopted and being a person of color in Somerville, Massachusetts, in a Caucasian family, has created a lot of his trust issues. The fact that he doesn’t get tenure at Harvard because, from his perspective anyway, he’s a gay man of color, I think is important in terms of the fact that his job pulls him out of Boston. The idea of tragedy not just being that these two men who actually love each other can no longer be together, but also their life circumstances have influenced that, I think is important, too. I think Kevin being a person of color, it does seem like it’s important to the story of the play.
MW: The show gets really intense. Has your husband seen it?
PANCHOLY: He has, yeah. He said he wept at the end. As an actor, I’m so grateful I was able to move him. I also feel like he knows me so well, so for him to be transported in that way felt really nice.
We’ve been together for 14 years, and I think we’re very happy. We’re nowhere in the state that this couple is in, but I think that even if you are in a happy relationship, it brings up these questions around like, are you handling the things in your relationship that you should be handling in the proper way? Are you talking about things? Do you have the same perspective on things? If you don’t, are you shoving them under the rug or are you actually talking about them?
MW: The play seems to imply that straight married couples and gay married couples might treat infidelity differently.
PANCHOLY: I don’t know if the play is implying that because I actually feel like no one’s immune from the infidelity in the play. Theo’s parents have also had their own infidelities and have chosen to stay together. There are so many gay plays that are so important, and they’re having revival moments now on Broadway, like Boys in the Band and Torch Song Trilogy. There are so many plays about the struggle to be equal citizens, or to be treated equally, or to have the right to love. This play is about gay men going through the same problems that any other human being would be going through in terms of relationships, and falling in love, and the tragedy of still being in love and feeling like your life is falling apart. Although it’s universal in that way, I also think it is unique. It’s specific in that their relationship is influenced by things that I think are prevalent in gay culture, like Grindr and this idea that maybe monogamy hasn’t been prescribed on gay couples in the way that it was prescribed on straight couples from an early age. It is specific in that way, and yet it’s also not treating us differently about the struggle to be human beings. In some ways, I feel like it’s saying that we go through the same trials as straight couples, and then on some level, it’s allowing for the unique perspective of being a gay couple.
MW: The Grindr influence.
PANCHOLY: Not even just the Grindr thing, but this idea that part of their decision to get married was that they did truly love each other, but they also went at midnight when gay marriage got legalized for the first time [in Massachusetts]. They were one of the first gay couples to get married. There’s a certain sweep in that it’s different than a straight couple deciding to get married. I think it’s all of that.
Part of what’s cool about this play is that on some level, everyone in this room has pinned expectations and hopes on this couple, because they had to fight harder for the right to be together. It’s a tough thing to saddle a relationship with. And even though we have federal gay marriage, we’re still fighting for the right to be treated equally.
Now the issue is that we can get married, but do they have to make us a wedding cake? We’re always fighting that fight on some level. I feel like we have this perception that we have to put ourselves out there as these perfect forms of love. In fact, love is complicated, and love falls apart, and we shouldn’t have to carry that burden [just] to be treated as equal citizens. We should be allowed to have faults and let our marriages fall apart as well.
MW: It gets messy for Kevin and Theo. Is it cathartic, or is it scary acting that?
PANCHOLY: I’m lucky because our ensemble is amazing. Glenn Fitzgerald is, I think, phenomenal in the show and so easy to play [opposite]. I think we allow ourselves to be vulnerable with each other, and to go to some pretty dark places, but it can feel safe. When you’re playing a character, you’re holding all these things. I feel like Kevin’s a character who has created a world where he doesn’t let a lot of people in because he has been let down so many times. He was abandoned by his real parents, and then adopted into a family of alcoholic parents. I think the catharsis, in a way, is being able to say all these things that I’ve been holding inside, I now get to say and put them out. Sometimes you leave the stage and you’re like, “Oh my god, what just happened up there?” You can feel pretty naked sometimes, pretty vulnerable, but I feel really safe on stage too because all the other actors. We’re really like a family unit, which is great.
MW: With regards your activist work, do you keep track of what the White House Initiative on Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders is doing?
PANCHOLY: I do. I was actually on a group [within the Initiative] called the President’s Advisory Commission on Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders, which I’m now very careful to call President Obama’s Advisory Commission on Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders so that there’s no wrong association.
MW: You and nine other members left the commission. What are they doing now, and why did you and the other members leave?
PANCHOLY: I’m not one hundred percent sure what they’re doing now. I think there are a couple commissioners that stayed on with the idea that they would be able to do some work from within that would be harder to do without. For me, I found that the work I wanted to do, I couldn’t really do while on the commission. As a commissioner, you are sort of tasked with being a part of the White House.
The big thing that I did during my time there was help to launch an anti-bullying campaign for Asian-American and Pacific Islander kids called “Act to Change,” which I’m promoting now at acttochange.org. I found that the rhetoric coming out of the White House — that was, in a way, actually bullying — seemed to go against what we were trying to do. There was so much anti-Muslim stuff and anti-immigrant stuff. It was hard to say we’re a White House campaign that’s trying to help kids deal with being bullied for being Muslim or being immigrants. We actually moved that campaign outside of the White House, and it still exists right now. I’ve kept that work alive, and we’re actively building an advisory board, and fundraising, and doing all that kind of stuff to keep it active.
We’re trying to build a youth activation program where we bring together young people from different schools across the country and ask them about their experiences about bullying, and then have them come up with solutions that they could then take back to their schools and give them the materials and training that they might need to do that. This idea that instead of being a voice from the outside, kids from inside schools deal with bullying and create their own cultural sensitivity programs. We’re still building it right now and fundraising for it. For me, I didn’t feel like I could do that from within the White House. I also felt like the things I had signed on for as a commissioner under the Obama administration were going to be really different under the Trump administration, and it wasn’t stuff I was interested in doing.
MW: The Initiative falls under the Department of Education. Do you believe that Trump and Secretary DeVos are sincerely interested in seeing it succeed?
PANCHOLY: I don’t know because I’m not really on the inside of it anymore, but I can say when we had discussions around what that might look like as we saw the end of the Obama administration happening, there was this idea that a lot of the things that we were fighting for were things like the Affordable Care Act, and DACA, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, things like that. I think one of the things we thought would probably happen is that the focus would probably shift to business and growing business interests and stuff like that in the Asian-American community. I don’t know if that’s what they’re doing or not, but that it would just be a shift in values.
MW: That’s a valid direction.
PANCHOLY: Yeah, [but] that’s not really why I joined. I think there was this idea that when we were there, we were a mouthpiece for the community and organizations on the ground to reach out to the White House and say, “We’re having trouble with immigration stuff. What are our legal [options]?” We didn’t think we’d be able to provide those kinds of resources anymore, and that didn’t feel like something that I and many of the commissioners felt comfortable not being able to do.
MW: Did you stand up and walk out of a conference room, or did you resign by letter?
PANCHOLY: We tendered a letter of resignation.
MW: It wasn’t as dramatic as a walkout.
PANCHOLY: No. To be honest, that was part of it too. We had asked for meetings with people that we thought we should have meetings with to figure out what we could be doing, and they weren’t being responded to. I think it was February 2017 that we did it, but the immigration ban had just gone through. Trump had just announced that, I think. I can’t speak for everybody else, but I just felt like I can’t do the work I’m doing that I want to do and be a part of this anymore.
MW: What are your plans after The Remains closes?
PANCHOLY: I just closed a play in New York, Good For Otto, literally the day before I came down to D.C. to start rehearsals. It was a new David Rabe play with an insane cast. It was Ed Harris, F. Murray Abraham, Rhea Perlman, and Mark Linn-Baker. It was an exhausting three-hour play. There were very funny parts to it, but it was a three-hour play about mental health in America. I played a guy who was bipolar and I think had been abused by a violent teacher as a kid. It was a really demanding play and really emotionally demanding. We literally closed on a Sunday at 6 p.m. and then I got a 9 a.m. train the next morning, and came down here to start rehearsals for this. So I need a little bit of downtime, I think, when we finish up here.
I’m in the process of writing a novel for young readers about a little brown boy growing up in the Midwest who’s just discovering that he might be gay, and is trying to navigate middle school, and decides that the only way to get people to love him is if he’s the best at something. So he sets out on these missions to prove that he’s the best at something. I just sold it to an amazing editor, who I love. It’s an imprint at HarperCollins called Balzer and Bray. They edited the book that became the movie Love, Simon. They also edited The Hate U Give, which is being made into a movie. I love them and I’m working with them, but they’re also wanting more and more of the book. I feel like it needs to be really funny and really sweet, but it’s also something that’s important to me in terms of the type of work that I’m putting out into the world.
MW: Do you have a title for your novel?
PANCHOLY: The working title is The Best At It. It’s very fictionalized, but it’s also loosely based on my own perspective as a kid in middle school and the stuff that I went through. I went to middle school in a couple different places. We moved around a lot. I was living in Indiana from two to seven. Then I was in Texas for a year, in Houston, Texas. Then we moved to Tampa, Florida. I have these different perspectives. The book takes place in the Midwest just because I feel like those early years were formative for me, and it feels like a nice place to set the book.
MW: This seems to be a moment now of teen gay romance stories. How do you think this book would fit into that?
PANCHOLY: When I was shopping it around, I met with a bunch of different publishers. I think consistently across the board, people were saying that there has been more of an LGBT presence in the young adult space, which is a little bit older, like the Love, Simon age, I guess, or The Hate U Give kind of age. It’s sort of new, but there isn’t as much of it in the middle grade space. I don’t know if it’s brand new, and certainly the voices of people of color that might be also experiencing sexuality stuff. I think a lot of people were interested in it for that reason. I read some article in the New York Times about this — there’s actually not a lot of kids of color and girls that are lead characters in young people’s books. It’s still a pretty straight, white-dominated world for some reason. I think it’s important. I certainly know that when I was in middle school, if I had read a book about a gay brown middle schooler, I would’ve been like, that makes sense. I don’t have to be so scared or so alone.
I think as an artist, that’s kind of what I feel like I’m always trying to do — even with The Remains. I feel like people in real life, we don’t get to experience our emotions in the way that we probably should give them the space to be felt. I think people come to the theater to feel things. I think that part of what this play does is put up something that everyone who’s been in a relationship will recognize, and they’ll get to go through something that they might not otherwise get to express in their lives. That’s important, and I’m hoping with a book like this, that a young person will read it and be like, I recognize that, or maybe I’m doing the same thing this kid is and I don’t have to. Not that there’s a message or this is what you should change in your life, but that it’s more just a recognition in a way. I see myself in that, and seeing myself makes me feel a little less alone in the world.
MW: Alec Baldwin has his great Trump, and Tina Fey has her Sarah Palin. Who would be your signature political character?
PANCHOLY: There’s some people, like the Bobby Jindals of the world, that I feel could be parodied.
MW: Jindal would be good. I don’t know if Ajit Pai is too obvious.
PANCHOLY: I’d take obvious. I think that’s kind of the point.
The Remains runs until June 24 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th Street, NW. Tickets are $20 to $85. Call (202) 232-7267, or visit studiotheatre.org.