Thursday June 21, 2012

LENOX -- Mark Roberts is quite the multi-tasker. This month, he's starring in a Los Angeles revival of his 2000 one-act "Couples Counseling Killed Katie," while another of his plays ("Where the Great Ones Run") is also onstage in that city, and his new work "Parasite Drag" is getting a workout at Shakespeare & Company's Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre, where it is currently in previews and has its press opening Friday. It runs through Sept. 2 in rotating repertory with "The Tale of the Allergist's Wife" and "Cassandra Speaks."

Oh, and he's also busy writing the next season of "Mike & Molly," the successful CBS sitcom he created, which returns for a third season in the fall.

"Yeah, I'm just fishing and walking on the beach," Roberts says, reached by phone at the L.A. offices of "Mike & Molly," when it's jokingly suggested he has a lot of free time on his hands these days.

"Parasite Drag" is a taut four-hander, a dark comedy examining a barely-functioning family at a crisis point. It features three S&Co. veterans -- Elizabeth Aspenlieder, Jason Asprey and Josh Aaron McCabe -- and one relative newcomer, Kate Abbruzzese, who made her mainstage debut at S&Co. last summer.

Stephen Rothman directs, in his S&Co. debut.

The production marks a reunion of sorts for Roberts and Rothman, a well-traveled director (and founder of the Pasadena Playhouse) who directed some of Roberts' scripts on "The New WKRP In Cincinnati" during its two seasons in the early ‘90s, and in fact directed Roberts in his first original play, an award-winning one-man-show called "One Color Rainbow."

Rothman is effusive in his praise of this new work, which has had a workshop performance and a successful non-Equity run at a Hollywood theater in 2010. (He saw that production and says that at the close of the first act he declared his intention to one day direct it.) This is the play's East Coast debut and the first Equity production of the piece -- the "first time actors have been paid to spend three weeks (in rehearsal) and really get under the skin of this thing," he says, seated in an office at the Bernstein Theatre during a rehearsal break.

"This is rock-and-roll theater, baby," Rothman declares, referring to the quickly approaching first preview as well as the emotional vulnerability he's asking from his actors in this story centering around an unwanted reunion between two brothers whose sister is in the late stages of a terminal illness.

"You've got to have rock-and-roll actors who are willing to just go for it and take risks. I think the audiences who've been enjoying these actors all of these years are going to be really excited by what they're doing with this show."

Roberts, who has also been a successful stand-up comic as well as producer and head writer for the CBS hit, "Two and a Half Men," is quite open about the autobiographical nature of "Parasite Drag," set in a small Illinois town not unlike the one in which he grew up. (He even named the ne'er do well character, played by Asprey, after his Uncle Ronnie, who was invoked through Roberts' childhood as a cautionary tale before he suffered an untimely death by violence, Roberts says.)

"It's always an odd feeling when you grow up in the same household and have so many tough experiences and yet, later on in life, as adults, you essentially become strangers to one another, with these distant memories in the back of your head of a common experience," Robert says. "I'm 51 years old and my brother knew me until I was about 18, and that was it. So he doesn't really know who I am, nor do I know who he is. It's strangers connected by blood."

Rothman and S&Co. see a lot of potential in the play and are hoping to take "Parasite Drag" to New York from here, to make it "one of those Off-Broadway shows you hope everyone is talking about, saying you have to see this," Rothman says. 

Though the play is darker than much of Roberts' other work (a review in the Hollywood Reporter described its characters as "truly miserable and often unpleasant people"), a rehearsal runthrough showed the actors in Lenox are indeed finding the humor in it, particularly in the clash of lifestyle and cultures between two brothers who are intimately connected, but very different people.

The director seems totally enlivened by the material.

"I've gotten to the point in my career where I want to work on the stuff that really excites me and makes me jump out of bed every day and say ‘I can't wait to get to the rehearsal hall.' And that makes me stay an hour after rehearsal, talking to the stage manager," he says. "I'm loving being here, thinking about what just happened today and where can we take it tomorrow."



What: "Parasite Drag" by Mark Roberts

Who: Shakespeare & Company

When: In rotating repertory now through Sept. 2 (press opening -- Friday 8:30 p.m.)

Where: Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre, 70 Kemble St., Lenox

Tickets: $50-$15

How: (413) 637-3353;
shakespeare.org; at box office