In a 2012 interview with Backstage, playwright Mark Roberts alleges that Two and a Half Men creator Chuck Lorre approached him after a performance of his play Couples Counseling Killed Katie and said, "If nobody has made you rich writing television, I'd like to be that guy." Roberts did indeed make it big in television, going on to executive-produce Two and a Half Men and create CBS's Mike and Molly (the latter of which was just renewed for a fifth season). Yet judging by the incredibly sinister light in which Roberts casts the world of broadcast television in his latest play, Enter at Forest Lawn (presented by The Amoralists as part of The Gyre, their summer residency at Walkerspace "exploring man's vicious cycles"), this was something of a Faustian offer. I cannot fathom an amount of money large enough to make me want to spend several years of my life with the deformed hell-creatures that inhabit Roberts' Boschian vision of Burbank.
Jack Story (playwright Roberts) is the writer and executive producer of the most popular sitcom on television, which is about to sell into syndication for $2 million an episode. Unfortunately, the actor who plays rascally Uncle Danny has a serious problem with cocaine and hookers. (This is sounding eerily familiar.) Stanley (David Lanson) thinks Uncle Danny is in no position to be put in front of a live studio audience and cameras, but Jack is undeterred. He sends his mousy assistant, Jessica (Sarah Lemp), to Uncle Danny's drug den in the Chateau Marmont to get him to sign the syndication papers. Meanwhile, the ruthlessly cunning Marla (Anna Stromberg playing a dominatrix in a power suit) wants Jack to hire her nephew Clinton (Matthew Pilieci), a writer and war veteran with a hook for a hand. In a brisk 70 minutes, things go from disgusting to weird to deadly in this darker-than-dark backstage comedy.
Director Jay Stull (who collaborated with Roberts on last year's brilliant Rantoul and Die) has gone full on Grotowski in his staging. Everyone moves with exaggerated physical impairments (like a bunch of Malibu Richard IIIs), their faces twisted into horrifying masks. Normally, such heavy-handed and theoretical direction would lead to pretty awful theater, but this stellar cast impressively makes it work. You just can't look away from these endlessly watchable (and hugely over-the-top) performances. Roberts, in particular, has the carriage and gravity of a man who is waging a war or commanding a starship, rather than writing nonthreatening, thoroughly uncontroversial jokes for a 22-minute sitcom in an effort to sell American viewers Toyotas and Applebee's.
Yet where the characters of Rantoul and Die were at least recognizably human, the ones in Enter at Forest Lawn are not. Roberts has an uncanny ability to pair hilarious prose (much of which is unprintable here) with incredibly unfunny (even tragic) situations, leading the audience to the uncomfortable position of not knowing whether to laugh or run away in horror. While this trippy juxtaposition is certainly theatrically compelling, the never-ending horror parade that is Roberts' Hollywood becomes psychically draining in the absence of any relatable characters.
This feeling is exacerbated by David Harwell's sterile set of cold-gray walls and frosted glass. Jeanne Travis' soundscape of lurching machinery and cruel laughter greets the audience as we enter, creating a feeling akin to waiting on line for Space Mountain. We're about to be devoured by a hungry monster.
As it turns out, the characters in this play are already in the belly of the beast, but since we don't like them much anyway, it doesn't really matter. The performances and sharp dialogue alone make Enter at Forest Lawn a worthwhile night at the theater. However, if you can only see one show in The Gyre, you should make it The Qualification of Douglas Evans (review to publish tomorrow).