The Man Thing
"It wasn’t until later in life that I became a halfway decent human being..."
ACTOR. COMEDIAN. PRODUCER. Writer. The list of titles is staggering, yet Renaissance Man Mark Roberts has managed to keep the bar raised high. He appeared on “The Tonight Show” seven times as a stand-up comic which led to guest starring roles on television and films including “Seinfeld,” “Friends,” and “The Larry Sanders Show.” Beyond that, he was the creator of the CBS comedy “Mike and Molly” and served as the head writer of “Two and a Half Men” for seven years.
But time in television has never severed Roberts from his connection to live theater. This year marks his return to the stage, both as actor and playwright in New Country, billed as an "unfiltered comedy," currently running at The Cherry Lane Theater in New York.
New Country, according to press notes tells the story of “handsome, charismatic, Country music star Justin Spears. He’s rich, famous, cavalier, with an ego at the top of the charts. It’s Justin’s bachelor party on the eve of his wedding day, and his ruthless managers, Paul and Chuck, try in vain to keep an unruly entourage under control. Enter Ollie, the star-struck hotel bellboy with a cock-eyed view of fame, Sharon, Justin’s vigilante, scorned ex-girlfriend, and dirty old pig farming Uncle Jim (Roberts).”
MICHAEL RAVER: What inspired you to write New Country?
MARK ROBERTS: My motivations are always so odd to me. Abstract. I was sitting in an airport one day and watching a group of young men, probably in their late twenties or early thirties. Their body language and their sense of camaraderie had me starting to reflect on my own journey as a man, and that it wasn’t until later in life that I became a halfway decent human being. That kind of posturing and male ego has caused many of the problems in the world. Violence. Wars. I decided I wanted to write a comedy about that. The idea of how men control and damage the planet and how women are essentially the caretakers and bear the brunt of many of our mistakes.
RAVER: Is that why the gender division in the piece is such that there’s only one woman?
ROBERTS: Yes. I wanted the female character to be the strongest and least represented because I think that’s the reality of the world. My female friends have told me on many occasions that if I was a woman, I’d probably be in jail right now. [Laughs]
RAVER: How long did it take to write?
ROBERTS: I started working on this in August of last year, and then the script that is being performed now was locked down in February.
Mark Roberts as "dirty old pig farming Uncle Jim" in Roberts' "unfiltered comedy," New Country (photo by Clay Anderson)
RAVER: And when did the production at Rattlestick/Cherry Lane come into the picture?
ROBERTS: I had met with David Harwell, who had read some of my plays. We wanted to work together. That happened quite awhile ago. He was the one who really helped usher this in and do the co-production with Rattlestick. That was around August.
RAVER: So was the play written specifically for that collaboration?
ROBERTS: No, I just write what I’m writing and as long as people are interested in working with me, the writing is never tailored for anything other than what’s in my head.
RAVER: Do you do a lot of rewrites in rehearsal?
ROBERTS: I’m not one of those writers that does the work-in-progress thing. I think my work in television has given me a work ethic where I don’t feel like I should hand in the script over until I’ve done my work on it. Certainly things will change, things will get tweaked a little bit. I feel my job has to be done before anyone else’s job can begin.
RAVER: When you got to the casting process, did you know you were going to be playing that role?
ROBERTS: My writing is pretty lean. I’m also a fan of the actor’s process, so I like to eliminate any guesswork for them. When we got to the point of casting, it sounded like it was easier for me to play it rather than to translate what is a balancing act between pathos and comedy. It seemed like it would be more time and cost effective for me to just do it myself.
RAVER: Actors who appear in work they’ve written themselves can receive criticism for wearing two hats. How do you handle that?
ROBERTS: It’s always risky because you open yourself up twice for criticism. It can come across as a vanity project and what happens is that people dismiss the piece. I think most times, performing in my work has allowed for a short hand, that it’ll be easier for me to translate what I want from this role than to explain it to someone else. It’s satisfying because I made sure my work as a writer was done before I got into the rehearsal. I’m pretty good at walking into my own work with an openness to what the other people in the room bring.
RAVER: What do you ideally want from a director?
ROBERTS: Simplicity and a strong guiding hand.
RAVER: And how do you navigate disagreements between yourself and the other artists?
ROBERTS: As long as everyone is working at the top of their game, you’re going to have disagreements. But as long as you let the piece go to where it organically wants to and not hold on to preconceived ideas, it works. If you’re lucky enough, the audience will inform what the play needs to be.
New Country is in performance at The Cherry Lane Theater in New York. For more information, go here.
Five Questions for Mark Roberts
Q: Rehearsal or Performance?
Q: Tennessee Williams or Eugene O’Neill?
A: Eugene O’Neill
Q: Essential first day of rehearsal accessory?
Q: Play that you’ve written that changed your approach to playwriting?
A: Parasite Drag [a Roberts play that was produced in 2010 in Los Angeles]
Q: Project that you haven’t done yet that you’re champing at the bit to do?
A: The next one.
Michael Raver is an actor and playwright. He’s performed classical theatrical roles at Lincoln Center, The Pearl Theatre Company and Tony Randall’s National Actor’s Theatre, as well as regional theaters across the country. As a playwright his work has been presented by The Martha Graham Dance Company, The Actors Company Theater, The Pearl Theatre Company, Bedlam, Orlando Shakespeare Theater, Playhouse on Park, The Bridge Street Theater, and Sonnet Repertory Theatre. He is a judge of the Ferro Grumley Award for LGBT fiction and regularly contributes cultural arts journalism for Classical TV.
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