Irony, wit and rampant narcissism abound in Remains to be Seen, the latest comic drama by Kate Hawley, whose most recent work—Complications from a Fall and Coming of Age—also premiered at the Jewel. This time the brilliant cast—arguably the finest ensemble ever on this stage—weaves its way through a cascade of revelations on Kent Dorsey’s terrific set.
We first meet theater professor Jack (Paul Whitworth) and his unsuccessful playwright wife Clare (Julie James) as they await houseguests, old friends about to arrive for yet another five-year-reunion. How will they look? Whose career is on the skids? And just who is this new partner that Stu (Mike Ryan) is bringing so soon after the death of his celebrated wife? Nancy Carlin plays Sissy, a major ditz, and Rolf Saxon plays Gordon, her soap opera actor husband with a well-polished ego—kudos to both.
They arrive with a ton of luggage and all their predictable complaints. Well, almost all of them. Our hostess (a stunning Julie James) immediately starts drinking, even though Jack warns her, “It’s going to be a long evening.” To which she replies, “Exactly!” And pours another glass.
Put yourself in their places. They’ve known each other forever, and they get together to catch up and check each other out. But do they still know each other? And what’s going to be edited out in the histrionics about to erupt?
One can trace the lineage of Hawley’s piquant probing of old friends and dysfunctional couples through Pinter and Albee, especially the latter’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Satire and silliness mingle as easily as lies and clichés (think The Big Chill) after the steady stream of cocktails that lubricate the opening scene. The playwright is a master of crisp smart small talk designed to cover up discomfort. But nothing is what you expect, and Hawley is at her best in split-second emotional pivots that give the play its whiplash of surprise—and bracing relevance.
It would be unfair to detail the trajectory of this play, which genuinely surprised, even startled, more than once. So many plot and dialogue twists that produce the steady pulse of lively banter and awkward pauses. To reveal specifics would be to rob future audiences of juicy and crucial pleasures.
Let’s just say that there are many inside theater jokes, from delicious puns on titles of plays to a lively pastiche of light opera gems. Acting jokes, plastic surgery jokes, self-referential playwright jokes, animal companion jokes, weight-loss jokes, aging jokes, bathroom jokes. Every fear, every phobia, every irritating complaint, even the “wokeness” of academia—nothing is spared. You bet there are secrets the old friends have kept from each other, and as these emerge, they lead not just to certain kinds of wry closure, but also to freshly opened doors. In art, as in life, choices and chances repeat, eternally.
But this being Hawley, no happy discovery is allowed to sag into sentimentality. The playwright has an ear for the inner music of our dreams, the small triumphs as well as the grand stumbles. I would have liked another half hour of this play, probing a few more edges of the compelling themes.
Remains to be Seen is a very funny play. And it is something more. If you get any half-dozen longtime friends together, add a few cocktails and some fresh revelations, you could come up with fuel for a bracing two hours of kvetching and mischief. Hawley goes further, peeling away the sarcasm and wordplay to make us consider the small, ordinary, private moments that make each life utterly rare. And perhaps a little foolish.
The Jewel Theatre production of ‘Remains to be Seen,’ written by Kate Hawley and directed by Paul Mullins, runs through April 24. Colligan Theater, Tannery Arts Center, 1010 River St., Santa Cruz. jeweltheatre.net.