Mark Roberts Reflects on TV Industry Experiences: 'There Are Children There That Are Broken'
"If it's not on the screen, it never happened," say the characters in Enter at Forest Lawn, Mark Roberts' Off-Broadway play that offers a partially absurd, partially accurate view of what happens inside the executive offices of the television industry.
"That's actually something I had heard somebody say! I've heard some of it, and I've heard a lot worse," Roberts — former Two and a Half Men head writer, The Big Bang Theory executive consultant and creator of Mike and Molly — tells The Hollywood Reporter of the line. "It's funny — when the people in the theater community read this play, they were like, 'Wow, this is a crazy, absurd world,' but people who work in the industry in Los Angeles thought it was like a documentary. It certainly wasn't something that my representation got excited about!"
Enter at Forest Lawn — which received its world premiere in a production by New York’s Amoralists Theatre Company — centers on Jack Story (played by Roberts), the producer of "the number-one scripted show on network television," whose lucrative syndication deal is threatened by the drugs- and hooker-infused, criminally debauched lifestyle of his lead actor.
A hapless publicist, an insecure assistant, a rapacious agent and a hopeful writer round out the cast; the Uncle Danny character, who strongly resembles Charlie Sheen in description, never appears onstage because Roberts says the play isn't necessarily about him, or any particular celebrity or executive.
"The story to me is about a machine that will continue to crank out humor for America and what goes on behind that, so you didn’t need to see him because he's really not the story, and in the grand scheme of things, he's replaceable," Roberts explains. "It wasn't about the concept of the bad-boy actor or anything like that, which has been done; the story to me was always the scrambling that goes on to keep a money train running, and what that does to human beings."
"Ultimately, the story, as I was writing it, and certainly as I was acting it, it became about myself," he adds. "At the end of the day, it was a morality tale for myself, what I was going to do and be okay with and what I was able to tell myself in order to continue to cash the checks.
"Obviously, yes, there are some things, and I would be lying if it didn't tickle me to make a couple of inside references, because I clearly do. But I'm not looking to slander anybody or point fingers, or throw a hand grenade into how lucky and blessed I've been as a human being; it's more a cautionary tale for myself that other people can watch," he continues. "I found myself as just a comedy writer from the Midwest sort of thrown into a tornado that spat me out in such a way that I didn't like who I became, and so any resemblance to a living human being is all me."
Roberts said he began writing Enter at Forest Lawn — his first play about show business (his others are Midwestern-based) — just over a year ago. "It's about the idea that a lot of really broken, damaged people come together to a community, and their inability to express humanity and their inability to sort of heal themselves in a not very healthy, money-driven, ego-driven environment, and what that does to them as human beings, like test subjects," he says. "I think that's what we tried to show, is that there is a humanity there. There are children there that are broken."
Yet the play isn't necessarily limited to those who work in entertainment. "The bigger picture is, as human beings walking around the planet, if we were really honest with ourselves, we would admit that we're all a little bit scared, we're all a little bit worried about our livelihood and how we're perceived, and how it puts us all in these little habit trails with an inability to put our hand out to the person next to us and go, 'I'm scared too, I'm just a human being on the planet,' " he says. "Looking at the person next to you and going, 'You got a mom and dad, you have people that you love, and you have dreams,' instead of trying to step on them and get around them — understand them and love them. I think life gets to be a little easier if you're able to open that up."
Roberts' plot plays out in a cold, confining gray office built by set designer David Harwell that is a cross between an operating room, a mausoleum and an arena for "this blood sport." Roberts says, laughing, "There's parts of the play where everybody in the front row pulls their legs in. It just gets a little bit too close for comfort, and that was the idea."
Even more so, each character has a distinct vocal delivery and choreography for scene changes to illustrate how the environment physically affects the people in it. "My character walks completely in squares — I never did any cross angles — based on the fact that I was chained to my desk," he says of the idea brainstormed with director Jay Stull, who brought in a dance choreographer to fine-tune it.
Still, Roberts isn't trying to radically transform the "machine." "I still have relationships in television, and I will at some point dip my toe back into it," he says. "There's nothing that I would change. What hopefully has changed is me and my own perception. I certainly wouldn't trade any of my experiences. You make choices in life with who you're willing to work with and what you're willing to put up with, and sometimes those things come to a head, and you gather the information. And you know, I will work in television again, I will just be very particular about who I work with.... I've made some lovely, lovely friends, and relationships I'll have for the rest of my life, and I look forward to working with them again.
"It's really cool to sit at home and see stuff that you thought of on TV, and to have people come up to you and say, 'That really touched me,' or 'My wife and I, it's our favorite show, and we sit down and love it,' " he adds, "I like making people laugh and I like entertaining people, so there's a lot of rewards — not to mention the fact that you're generously compensated for doing something that you hopefully love. And if you're working in the right environment, it can be amazing. It's a blessing to be able to do something that you love and to get paid for it."
Enter at Forest Lawn runs through Aug. 9 at Walkerspace in New York City.