The four vignettes that make up Michael Smith's new piece, Trouble, now playing in the Joe Cino Theater at Theater for the New City, are not unlike the four elements: watery in places, sometimes laboriously sodden, occasionally breezy with offbeat musings, then suddenly fired with bitchy wit. The choppiness is reassuring in a way. With his reviewing for The Village Voice in the 1950's and 60's, Smith is widely considered the man who legitimated Off-Off-Broadway; it's nice to see that he has retained some of the amateurish charm that is the form's hallmark. Running through the center of the four loosely related sections—the way a river runs through manmade borders—is the aging but still formidable Tess Byerson (Kathryn Chilson), New York City's new commissioner of art and culture. Like any aging river, Tess may sport a few more wandering curves than in yesteryear, but she has lost none of the force of her current. She makes this fact clear in the opening scene, set in a Chinese restaurant during a press barrage: "Look at the pictures. Every single one, I'm not just smiling, I'm radiant. I can't fake that."
Self-love, though, is inelegant. Smith's concern here is not with unchecked ego but with the delicacy of ego in its slow dance with time. Glamour inevitably fades; time eventually leads the waltz. What else could justify Tess's very next line: "But then what?" Indeed, what could justify the next, most successful part of the evening, as Tess and her aide, Dickie (Alfred St. John Smith), head out to the studio of artist Sandy Morphol (the brilliant Jimmy Camicia) for a visit as part of her hard-won commissionership?
After spending a tense few minutes in an elevator that doesn't appear to be moving, Tess and Dickie emerge into the "sweatshop," where the Andy Warhol stand-in lords over his models like a god. (The enmity many Caffe Cino veterans hold for Warhol and his posse is the stuff of Off-Off-Broadway legend; I can only think that Smith's affection for the long-defunct coffeehouse helped sharpen his pen to such a gleeful point here.)
So it is that Smith is at his best with a target in his sights, and Morphol's exploitive temple proves to be excellent ground for some of his strongest material. For instance, when Tess discovers that she is being videotaped while models copulate in the background, she is indignant. It's left to Dickie, a fan of Morphol's, to smooth the burgeoning rift:
Tess: I don't do porn. Dickie: But you look divine today. I mean it. This is one of your best days. You're like a love goddess presiding over the orgy. Athena never looked so good. Tess: You're sweet to say so. Now will you get the [expletive] out of my frame?
Such nimble jiu-jitsu is rarer the further from this scene we travel. Like Tess, we begin to feel the wheel of time slowly turning; for an audience member, needless to say, this is more fun as a dramatic theme than as a hard fact. When we get to the final vignette, which takes place between Tess and her previously unseen lover Randy (Dino Roscigno) in a jail following his arrest, whatever comic energy Smith once mustered has dissipated into the cavernous, dark air of the Cino. All that's left is an unfocused attempt at pathos, as Tess realizes she is no longer wanted.
That Smith also directed the piece may have something to do with this dissipation into fuzziness—what he couldn't sharpen as a writer he certainly couldn't improve with staging, if he could see that anything needed improving at all. Still, as anyone who's contemplated the paradox that is King Lear knows, to write about age and aging requires remarkably youthful vigor. With Trouble, Michael Smith shows that he may be technically a little long in the tooth, but when he sets his mind to it, those teeth can still deliver a wicked cut.