“Trouble”

Genesis West, Center Stage Theater, Santa Barbara, 1998; Theater for the New City, New York, 2006

I moved back to New York in 1986 to take a job in Mayor Koch’s press office at City Hall, thanks to the Ed’s crony Dan Wolf, the former editor of The Village Voice. Dan had a desk right outside the Mayor’s inner office, sat in on most of his meetings, and had lunch with him most days, and he lined me up a job in the Mayor’s press office, where I was assigned to be press liaison with a number of city agencies including the Department of Cultural Affairs. On my first day on the job I was told to sit in on and record an interview by Marcia Kramer of the Daily News with one of the Mayor’s assistants on the subject of Cultural Affairs Commissioner Bess Myerson’s relationship with a certain judge. Ms. Kramer, a blonde bombshell in sexy clothes and spike heels, was suffering from a terrible cold, the openly gay mayoral assistant was decidedly nervous, and I had not the faintest idea what they were talking about or what was at stake. But the press had the scent of a scandal, and over the next months it emerged that Myerson had given a city job to the daughter of the judge who was ruling on her lover’s divorce settlement, which was substantially reduced. Forced to resign, she was subsequently prosecuted by headline-hunting Rudolf Giuliani (she was acquitted). The episode was embarrassing to the scandal-plagued Mayor and the end, presumably, of a friendship that had helped him get reelected twice.

One of the few times I saw Ms. Myerson up close was when I accompanied the Mayor to the reopening of Carnegie Hall, an occasion that suggested the first of my four vignettes. I was not a confidant of anyone involved or privy to any secret information: the facts behind the play were all in the press, but the dialogue and characters are made up. I knew Andy Warhol a little and visited his Factory, but Tess Byerson, the subject of the play, is a fantasy version of Bess Myerson, Randy is imagined, and Big Boy is by no means a portrait of Koch, although the ambience reflects my experience of the political whirl.

Understandably, I was forbidden to write independently about the Mayor while I was working at City Hall, and it was with some trepidation that I drafted these satirical scenes. But I was fascinated by the pressures of the limelight and what political people had to contend with, and I was drawn to Bess, who carried and presented herself so well and survived with her dignity intact. I found her an irresistible character, and I hope my mockery is balanced with compassion. I wrote under a pseudonym and kept the texts to myself until well after the dust had settled. The four scenes were written separately over a period of a few years, and only at the end did I realize they cohere into a play.

“Trouble” was the first production of Genesis West, a company I founded in Santa Barbara with a young director, Maurice Lord.

Production Credits

“Trouble” was first presented by Genesis West at Center Stage Theater, Santa Barbara, California, April 30-May 9, 1998. It was directed by Maurice Lord with the following cast:

DICKIE   Benjamin Bottoms
TESS BYERSON   Gloria Rossi
BIG BOY   Laezer Schlomkowitz
SANDY MORPHOL   Matt Armor
PROGRAM COORDINATOR   Nicole Sherwood
RANDY   Laezer Schlomkowitz
GAOLER   Chris Turner

 

Stage manager   Tessa M. Bradley
Set design   Keven Strasburg
Lighting design   Michael Smith
Costume design   Aylene Rhyger
Ms. Rossi’s wardrobe   Whitney West
Musicians   Jamie Boller, Alfred Smith

 

I did another production of “Trouble” in January 2006 at Theater for the New City in New York. The impulse arose the previous spring when I directed “The Flight of the Butter Boy” by Guy J. Jackson for the Brush Creek Players with my son Alfred in a leading role. We so enjoyed working together that we wanted to do another play; but I was frustrated with invisibility and shallow talent pool of rural Oregon, and suddenly it seemed possible to produce a play in New York. Funding was secured by selling a small Diane Arbus photograph at auction at Sotheby’s. Having Alfred with me made it fun, and he was wonderful as Dickie. But the production was disappointingly far from polished, the actor playing Tess was fragile, and oddly enough, the play worked less well in New York than it did in Santa Barbara: the audience remembered fragments of the Bess Myerson story, wanted to know more, and wound up stranded between reality and imagination, satisfied in neither dimension. Many people said they liked the play, and it played well after the first week, with good performances all around. But we failed to win an audience and often performed for a handful of spectators. In retrospect I see it was not the right time to do this play, which spoke to its late ‘80s moment but is not pertinent now. I did it because it was doable and had a role for Alfred, and to prove I could. I had a great time in New York, did a couple of mellow events at La Mama, caught up with friends and peers, took advantage of the city’s cultural riches, and was glad to come home. The play might work with a glamorous star and snazzy production. I wonder.

Production Credits

A revival of “Trouble” was presented by Crystal Field’s Theater for the New City, 155 First Avenue, New York, January 12-February 5, 2006. It was directed by the author with the following cast:

DICKIE   Alfred St. John Smith
TESS BYERSON   Kathryn Chilson
BIG BOY   Renato R. Biribin
SANDY MORPHOL   Jimmy Camicia
PROGRAM COORDINATOR   Patti Dodd
RANDY   Dino Roscigno
GAOLER   Joshua Levine

 

Scenic design   Donald L. Brooks
Lighting design   Jon D. Andreadakis
Costume design   Patti Dodd
Sound design   Alfred Smith
Stage manager   Joshua Levine

 

“Trouble”

I

A CHINESE RENDEZVOUS

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Renato R. Biribin and Kathryn Chilson in the 2006 production of “Trouble” at Theater for the New City in New York

The foyer of an elegant Chinese restaurant in New York City. The small room is octagonal and lavishly decorated—gold brocade walls and gilt trim, mirrored niches, flower arrangements, a huge Chinese lantern overhead. A phone, discreetly concealed. Entrance from the street is through a revolving door upstage center; the dining room is off right.

An evening in December, 1986. DICKIE, an aide to TESS BYERSON, the Commissioner of Art and Culture, is pacing the floor, checking his watch, looking out the door. Finally he picks up the phone and dials, fidgeting.

DICKIE: Oh, where is she? (Into phone) Hello? Is this the commissioner’s auto? Well, where is she? Frank, is that you? Well, why did she bring the Mercedes? Someone has to be here to park it anyway. Am I to park it? Oh, never mind, the cops will take care of her. They take care of us all. The cops are here in unbelievable quantity. They must be expecting trouble. There are dozens on motorscooters, and the horse patrol, and vans and the command truck and intelligence all over. It’s like we’re under siege. (Listens) No. The Big Boy hadn’t even left his office the last I heard. You know how he is. I’m not going to carry around a radio. I really don’t even like a beeper. (TV lights go on outside the door up center, a hubbub is heard, flashbulbs go off.) Oh, here she is. Goodbye.

(Hangs up. TESS immediately enters in full battle regalia—a floor-length black dress lavishly plated with golden scales, a kind of mantilla that looks a little like a crown, with a long sheer black and gold drape over her shoulders. She looks larger than life and stunning.)

TESS: Am I late?

DICKIE: No. He’s still downtown. You have a few minutes.

TESS: Good. How do I look?

DICKIE (Sings): “There she comes … “

TESS: Is the judge here?

DICKIE: Yes.

TESS: And… ?

DICKIE: They are having martinis at the table. They are happy. Relax.

TESS: Is that phone clean?

DICKIE: Well, I suppose so.

TESS: Never mind if it is or not. There’s nothing wrong with any of this! Get me Randy, at the beach. (DICKIE dials telephone, listens.) I want to go in and say hello to them before the Big Boy gets here, if I have a chance. Then we’ll do the thing, and I can party.

DICKIE (Into phone, formally): Just a moment, I have the commissioner. (Proffers phone.)

TESS: Thanks, honey. Here, take these and park my car, will you? (She gives him her car keys and takes the phone. He goes out. Into phone) Sweetie, I just had to hear your voice … Nothing … No, no, nothing is wrong. I told you. All the pieces are in place. Nobody even has to say a word … Listen, it’s all perfectly normal. It has nothing to do with you or your divorce or the settlement or the houses or anything. Forget it. I’ve known the judge for years, and so has [BLEEP], who as you know is one of my dearest friends. The judge is a saint of the movement. I would do anything for her—we all would. Well, the judge had been moaning and crying to [BLEEP] for months about a job for her supposedly feckless kid, who was driving her crazy hanging around the apartment, and [BLEEP] had the girl send her resume around. So I hired her. Now that I am a commissioner again, I have jobs, and I need people I can trust. The girl is not without talent of some kind. She has a peculiar charm. I have been seeing her. I am sure she can be useful … Seeing her, what do you think? We have fun. So what if her mommy is ruling on your divorce? Is that her fault? Anyway, what is the point of being on top if you can’t lift up your friends when they’re low? Seriously, no problem. (Listens) Yes, tomorrow. (Listens. Low) Oh, baby, you said it. Oh, yeah. I just … love the sound of your voice. I’ll see you then. Oh, save it for me.

(Hangs up. DICKIE reenters.)

DICKIE: The cops have the car, don’t worry about it.

TESS: Thanks, sweetie, I am just going in to say hello to my friends. You stay here.

(She goes off right into the dining room. DICKIE watches her out and doesn’t even have time to turn around when the BIG BOY comes in, through another flurry of flashbulbs, up center. He is a large, heavy man gleamingly turned out in evening clothes. He radiates vigor and power.)

BIG BOY: Where is she? Let’s get this over with. Oh, hello, how are you? Is there a phone in here?

DICKIE: The commissioner will be right out.

BIG BOY (Picks up phone and dials): Tell her I am here. (DICKIE goes out. Into phone) Go on, tell me. (Listens.) I won’t do it. That’s my position and I will never change. What else? (Listens.) No, I am not going to bring it up with her. It is none of my business who sleeps with whom. You know my position on this. Government has no place in the bedroom, yours or mine or hers. The press can gossip, but I am not going to. It is a matter of principle, and I know I am right. (Listens.) Listen, I can take it. What else? (Listens.) Fuck ‘em. (Hangs up. DICKIE returns.) Where is everyone? Where is Mr. Wong?

DICKIE: The cops have us … isolated, sir.

BIG BOY: Don’t call me sir.

DICKIE: Sorry. I thought I should. Sorry.

BIG BOY: How long have I known you?

DICKIE: Do you know me? I didn’t know whether you knew me or not.

BIG BOY: Four years? Six years? You have been through several commissioners.

DICKIE: I only met you once.

BIG BOY: You have been to innumerable meetings in my office. We have testified at the same hearings. You were at my side. I have seen you dozens of times. You think I don’t know you?

DICKIE: I had my picture taken with you every Christmas.

BIG BOY: I’m not a dummy. I know you. What’s more, I know all about you. And everybody knows all about me. Ha ha. So we know each other. We’re friends. Don’t call me sir like that.

DICKIE: I won’t, sir. Sorry! I respect you!

BIG BOY: Call me Bob.

DICKIE: You’re not serious.

BIG BOY: Not in public.

DICKIE: I don’t believe we’re friends, exactly. Bob.

BIG BOY: Of course we are. I could call you up in the middle of the night and you would get up out of bed and do whatever I wanted done. Right? You are devoted to my interests. You know it is true. You want this job. You like being somebody. I rely on you. I trust you. You are one of the people I depend on. I thought you knew that. How much do you make?

DICKIE: Fifty-five.

BIG BOY: You think I would pay you fifty-five thousand dollars and not know you? Wake up! Look, do you want to help me?

DICKIE: Of course.

BIG BOY: I need to know what is going on here. You know what I am talking about. I want you to get in touch with Charlie Webb. Don’t call me. Call Charlie. Tell him everything he asks. Tell him everything you know. Call him today. Tell him what he doesn’t know enough to ask.

DICKIE: Well … Bob … I don’t think I should gossip about … someone I have a personal relationship with. I am a loyal person. That’s important to me.

BIG BOY: Loyalty is a precious quality and easily misplaced. Be loyal to me. She won’t take care of you. She only takes care of him. Don’t kid yourself. It’s not personal. Don’t let her fuck you. Call Charlie.

(TESS wafts in on a gust of music and strikes a pose. DICKIE melts into the scenery but listens in on the ensuing scene from behind an arch.)

TESS: Hello, Big Boy.

BIG BOY: Hello, Tess. It’s good to see you. (He kisses the cheek she presents.) You look great.

TESS: So do you. Aren’t we a couple! You have always been my favorite date.

BIG BOY: You’re mine, too. So, let’s hit it. (Starts to leave.)

TESS: Bobby, wait! Don’t we get to … talk? I mean, it seems like I never see you anymore.

BIG BOY: Is there something we need to talk about?

TESS: No, I just … meant it’s great to see you … I really get a kick out of it … we’re a great team, pal. Look at us. I mean …

BIG BOY: I hear you hired Tai Kwee Venable.

TESS: So? (Pause) So. What’s this thing we are doing?

BIG BOY (Pause): You’ll be great. Come on. (They go out through the revolving door up center and are met by such a barrage of flashes and lights that they are driven back into the room as if by a storm, suddenly wildly excited. Babble of voices outside.) I want to campaign. God! I love the crowds, I love the noise and confusion and the press of bodies. I love the lights and cameras. I love the sense of danger. I love know that everything is at stake at every moment. I love to be the center of attention.

TESS: Oh, me too. I can’t get enough of it.

BIG BOY: I’ll do anything. Anything.

TESS: Remember the time at the Coliseum?

BIG BOY: Remember the parade?

TESS: Remember moving in downtown? Remember Election Night?

BIG BOY: It’s all in the papers. I don’t have to remember.

TESS: I remember everything. It isn’t all in the papers.

BIG BOY: If it isn’t in the papers, it didn’t happen. I love the papers. I love the whole banana. What a life!

TESS: Listen, I’m really excited, Big Boy. I haven’t had this much fun in months. Let’s go out. I’m ready now. I was not quite ready before. Come on.

BIG BOY: Wait, I really have to talk to you.

TESS: This is not the moment.

BIG BOY: Just tell me you’re all right.

TESS: I’m fine. I’m great. Look at me. I have never been so happy in my whole life. And it’s all because of you, you great big wonderful man. I don’t want to ever do anything to hurt you.

BIG BOY: Such as what?

TESS: Anything. Hurt your feelings. Not be your friend.

BIG BOY: I believe you.

TESS: You can!

BIG BOY: I do, I believe you. But I don’t think I can trust you anymore.

TESS: You never trusted me. So what?

BIG BOY: I did. I always have.

TESS: So what? Honey, I’m fine, I’m swell. I’ve got this wonderful guy. I love my job. I have you for a pal. And I’m alive to enjoy it, k’neine hurre!

BIG BOY: O.K., babe, if that’s the way you want to play it.

TESS: It’s true, dammit! What’s the matter with you? (Pause) Are we doing this thing, or not?

BIG BOY: Now I’m really not in the mood.

(He takes out a small notepad and a pen and writes himself a small note. He takes out his speech, a few pages folded lengthwise, and scans it, concentrating. After a pause)

TESS: What am I supposed to do now? Just stand here? How come you’re the one that always talks? Me they only look at. They’d like to grill me. They’d like to rip me open. They’d like me to take care of them. They don’t even want to schtup me. Maybe later, after I get them worked up. The men want to have me and the women want to be me. Give me a break. Well, I’m happy! Look at the pictures. Every single one, I am not just smiling, I am radiant. I can’t fake that. But do I know how to set it up? Am I thinking about something else? You bet. It is not for me, it is for them. It’s their picture. It’s for you. I pose.

BIG BOY: Well, good.

TESS: But then what?

(BIG BOY refolds the speech and puts it away in an inside pocket. With a smile of recognition, he offers TESS his arm and propels them out the door. Flashes, etc., subside. DICKIE slowly emerges from his hiding place.)

DICKIE (To audience): What should I do? I am screwed either way. Can’t I just be a nice person and go on with my little life? Oh, what should I do? I don’t even like these people! The Big Boy’s all right, but he is not going to protect me, and Tess is a joke. I wanted to resign. I told her that the first day. I told her I was looking for another job and she should not count on me past Christmas, but that was last Christmas. There isn’t any other job and if there were they would not trust me. Everybody thinks this is the best job there is, but I had not been able to help anybody except in little dribs and drabs. Not enough so they would take care of me. The whole agency is a joke so she is perfect as commissioner. And she puts on a good show. You have to give her credit for that. I am such a wretch. We do what we can, and it helps, it really helps. I do it. If it weren’t for me they would have no access. Oh, I don’t know! (Dials phone call.) Anyway, I don’t even know what’s going on. I don’t have to tell them whom she has dinner with. They have detectives. (Into phone) Hi. It’s me … I wanted to call from the car but we didn’t come in the car. She left without a word and drove the Mercedes and I had to walk … No, I’m in a Chinese restaurant around the corner. You wouldn’t believe what’s going on. [BLEEP] is drinking martinis with Judge Venable in the other room, and Tess has gone out to do the thing with the Big Boy and then she’s coming back. They want me out so they can give my job to Tai Kwee but she could never do it. Everybody would be back to zero. Meanwhile the Big Boy wants me to spy on her for him! He ordered me to. There’s no way out. Did you see the Post? Whatever I do I’m a loser … and a rat … and a wimp … and a—... No, I am not crying, but I should cry… So look. Just pretend you don’t know me. Pretend I am some other me. It’s just a coincidence we have the same name and look the same. I don’t look like the real me anyway. The real me is thin... I’ve got to go. I’ll be home in forty-five. Kiss kiss.

(Hangs up, but not quick enough. TESS, returning, sees him do it.)

TESS: Who was that?

DICKIE: A friend.

TESS: What do you mean, a friend? A political friend? An artistic friend? A journalistic friend? A law enforcement friend?

DICKIE: A personal friend. Remember friends? Darling, I am a_ friend_ of yours. I love you. I am not gonna rat on you.

TESS: You’ll be sorry if you do. What do you think is going on here that is any of your business?

DICKIE: None of it is any of my business. I am at work. I am not doing my business, I am doing your business, whatever you want.

TESS: Well, what are you thinking?

DICKIE: I am not hanging around spying on you, if that’s what you mean. I am thinking about how to get some money for these friends of ours who are losing their buildings and lofts and theatres and can’t go on existing.

TESS: Listen, do you know Sandy Morphol?

DICKIE: Yes, but that’s not who I mean.

TESS: I want to meet him. Arrange something.

DICKIE: Am I finished? I mean, can I go home now?

TESS: Where do you live?

DICKIE: You know where I live. In Greenpoint.

TESS: Frank will drive you. Tell him I said to. Sit in the back. Then he can go home too. I have the Mercedes, as you know. (Lights start to fade.) I mean, I’m off. I’m off duty. I’ve done enough damage. Another day’s work is done.

(Fade to black.)

 

II

IN THE SWEATSHOP

TESS is with DICKIE in an elevator.

Trouble2

Alfred St. John Smith and Kathryn Chilson in “Trouble”

TESS (Eventually): Is this thing moving? I don’t think we are moving. Honey, I don’t believe we are moving. (Pause) What do you think? I have the distinct impression that nothing is happening here. Sweetie, are you with us?

DICKIE: I think you’re right.

TESS: Did we start? Were we ever ascending? I was preoccupied.

DICKIE: I thought we did. I believe everything is, uh, normal.

TESS: Did we start and then stop? I would have noticed if we stopped and the door didn’t open. That would not be what I expected to have happen. So I would have noticed. I might not have noticed when we started, if we started smoothly, but I would have noticed when we stopped and the door didn’t open. That is the sort of thing that catches my attention. I was preoccupied. I have a lot of things on my mind today. But I would have noticed when we stopped and the door didn’t open. I mean, if we had started. (Pause) Sweetie, do something. Is there a phone? Call somebody.

DICKIE: There doesn’t appear to be a phone. Preoccupied with what?

TESS: There has to be a phone. There is always a phone. Sandy Morphol would not have an elevator without a phone.

DICKIE: That’s the thing, Sandy doesn’t use the telephone, so he wouldn’t have a telephone in his elevator, would he. That follows, doesn’t it? It doesn’t follow, does it? There might perfectly well be a telephone in this elevator. But there doesn’t appear to be.

TESS: Doesn’t phone?

DICKIE: I beg your pardon.

TESS: Did you say he doesn’t phone?

DICKIE: No. Never.

TESS: How bizarre.

DICKIE: That’s what I originally thought. I remember when I first met him or heard about him that I too thought it odd. How would we ever get together? Things like that. But it makes sense. Most people do nothing but phone. Think of the time you could save.

TESS: What for? I mean, for what?

DICKIE: Well, art, of course, in this case. And the people who call! It’s all right at the office, but artists are not office workers. They are always at home in a sense, if you know what I mean. Even a studio is too romantic these days—la vie de bohème and all that. People drop in and expect entertainment. That’s why he calls it a sweatshop. If you’re here you’re expected to work, contribute, help push out the product. Nose to the grindstone and all that.

TESS: You mean he never talks on the telephone?

DICKIE: Well, frankly, entre nous, I secretly suspect he has actual friends and an actual private life. But we’re not part of it. He doesn’t actually live here, you know. He goes home and someone’s there. I was quite hurt when I realized that. Aren’t I silly? It goes to show how I give myself to my work, don’t you think? Ha ha. He probably talks on the phone all night. Quien sabe? When I’m around, he scarcely talks at all. Ha ha.

TESS: It must be quite difficult to … uh … do … whatever people … do. I mean without the telephone.

DICKIE: Oh, he has an office here. He just doesn’t work in it. He has a secretary.

TESS: Does she talk on the telephone?

DICKIE: He.

TESS: Does he talk on the telephone?

DICKIE: Who?

TESS: The secretary. Wake up!

DICKIE: Oh yes.

TESS: That’s good.

DICKIE: He phones all the time. The phone is always busy. But it doesn’t matter because you can’t phone him. Sandy Morphol. You can’t phone in. Not just because the telephone is always busy, but because it only works for outgoing. You can’t phone in.

TESS: Can’t phone in?

DICKIE: No. You really can’t.

TESS: How bizarre.

DICKIE: There isn’t any number.

TESS: How bizarre.

DICKIE: Yes, I suppose it is. But think about it. When people can phone in, when you have a phone and always answer it, if you’re there, they get the idea they should feel free to intrude themselves at any time, just call you up, just walk right in, just interrupt you whether you like it or not. It’s not like receiving a missive in the mail, which you can read when you choose. It’s like having your door open. Having your number listed is like advertising for people to call you. Of course, people need that. There they are, waiting by the phone, wishing somebody would call them up. Starved for surprises.

TESS: I hate surprises.

DICKIE: Really. What can you mean by that?

TESS: So how do people call him?

DICKIE: You can’t call him. You have to come over. But you have to have an appointment. Otherwise they shut off the elevator. It has a lock so you can’t go to his floor. See?

TESS: Is it locked?

DICKIE: It doesn’t appear to be. He had it unlocked specially for us, undoubtedly. Unless they are all locked. No, vertical is unlocked. It says so here on the panel.

TESS: I’m starting to panic.

DICKIE: Don’t panic. We’re early.

TESS: I like to be early. Are we still early?

DICKIE (Consulting watch): We appear to be. We appear to have several more minutes of being early before we begin being late.

TESS: There must be an alarm.

DICKIE: There is a red button. It says IN EMERGENCY PRESS.

TESS: Is this an emergency?

DICKIE: It doesn’t appear to be. I don’t feel that we are in any kind of danger, although we do seem to be hung up. Do you? But we have to do something. So maybe I’ll press it anyway, even though this is not an emergency. What do you think? It might become an emergency. Shall I press it?

TESS: What will happen then?

DICKIE: A loud bell will ring. Someone will know someone is here and do something. Call the police. Call the elevator service. They probably wouldn’t come for days. I don’t know. What do people do? Chop through the door. Come down through the ceiling on ropes and rescue us. How should I know?

TESS: The driver knows we’re here. I’m so glad I have a driver. My office knows we’re here. Sandy Morphol knows we’re here.

DICKIE: Possibly. (Pause) His secretary knows we’re here.

TESS: That’s what I meant. (Pause) Do we have to do something?

DICKIE: I don’t care. I am perfectly happy. (Pause) How about you?

TESS: I wish we could sit down.

DICKIE: If there was a phone I could call for some chairs.

TESS: Yes, that would be nice. (Pause) You appear to know an unusual number of details about how Mr. Morphol runs his studio. Why is that?

DICKIE: We’re friends, have been for years. Didn’t I tell you? Shall I press the button then?

TESS: Yes. No. Yes. No. Yes. No, don’t. No, please don’t. If a loud bell goes off, I will probably panic. I hate loud bells. I hate any kind of loud noise. I feel a little panicky already. I hate to panic. How long have we been in this elevator? Maybe it’s just slow.

DICKIE: Not more than five or ten minutes.

TESS: Sweatshop? I don’t want to go to a sweatshop. I thought this was a studio visit.

DICKIE: It’s ironic. It really is his studio. Don’t worry. He only calls it a sweatshop. Nobody sweats.

TESS: This is the kind of elevator sweatshops have. I’ve been in a sweatshop. Have you ever been in a sweatshop? It’s hard work but it’s fun. The girls and the guys are very lively. They all thought I was incredibly cute. I hated it but I liked it too. What else is there? I know this kind of elevator. I don’t like it. I don’t want to be in it anymore. I had a dream about this elevator many years ago. I recognized it the minute we stepped into it. I always knew I would die in this kind of elevator. (Pause) Let’s just go. We can call from the car and cancel. We’ll make another appointment. Have him up to the department for lunch.

DICKIE: Don’t be silly. We’re right here.

TESS: I beg your pardon.

DICKIE: Sorry, I mean, would that be wise? Anyway, you can’t phone in.

TESS: I despise irony. Irony is a poor relation of sincerity. I’ve been poor. I know what it’s like. Let me tell you, honey, it isn’t art. So what’s the joke?

DICKIE: Oh, no, it’s not a joke, my dear. It’s more a statement, you know, that art is work like anything else. It’s a product. You come in in the morning and plug away. That’s the idea. It isn’t something special and holy and precious and unique.

TESS: It isn’t?

DICKIE: That’s what irony is. It’s a joke at the same time it’s serious.

TESS: What floor is this sweatshop on? Did you press the button? I don’t remember seeing you press the button.

DICKIE: I must have done.

TESS: You went in ahead of me for some reason and stood at the back, and then the door closed and we just stood here. I don’t believe you pressed the button.

DICKIE: Oh, I must have done.

TESS: The more I hear the less I like. That must be the effect of age. I try to like the new but I don’t actually like anything.

DICKIE: One must make an effort, sometimes, of course.

TESS: Oh, one does, one does. I’m here, ain’t I? You know all that metal spaghetti we looked at in Brooklyn? I am not a fool. And the Queens Ballet? Are you kidding? Oh, they’ll get their grant, I don’t mean that, but I mean, really.

DICKIE: Do you want to not go?

TESS: Don’t be silly. We’re here. Let’s do it. Press the button. (He does. A jolt.) There, we’re moving. That must have been it. You didn’t press the button. Ha ha. You didn’t press the button.

DICKIE: Preoccupied with what? Tell me, quickly. I can’t stand it.

TESS: Nothing specific. The wind. The change in the wind. Have you noticed a change in the wind?

DICKIE: Paranoid?

TESS: Oh, always. Besides that. The Big Boy doesn’t trust me anymore.

DICKIE: Have you done something wrong?

TESS: Well, sure, honey, nobody’s perfect. (The elevator door opens. Tess sails out, followed rather languidly by DICKIE.) Well, at last we arrive at the promised land. I hated that. Remind me to bring raisins the next time. Not for the squirrels, for me. I got hungry. That was why I acted so strange. I’m borderline hypoglycemic. Isn’t everybody? When I don’t get something to eat at the right moment I get all confused and nervous. I don’t know where I am. So take care of me, baby. Don’t just stand there.

DICKIE: You had raisins.

TESS: Well, remind me to eat them. You take care of me and I’ll take care of you. Ha ha. (SANDY MORPHOL materializes armed with a camera. In a quick reflexive way, TESS composes herself into a magazine-perfect picture. Flash. To DICKIE, sotto voce) Introduce us, honey.

DICKIE: Oh, I’d love to. This is just too much. It’s just a dream come true. It’s such a … moment. The two of you two are two of my too favorite people and a … a … very special … part of this city. I can’t believe you’ve never met. Oh, I wish my mother were here. She’d love it. She’d eat it up. So. Well. All right. Tess of course you know, but this is Sandy Morphol…

TESS (Advancing and shaking his hand): I’m Tess. I’m not running for anything. Ha ha. How are you, sweetie? (Tossing her head. He takes a picture.) I just love your place. It’s so bright. And enormous. Will you show me around? I suppose Dickie has seen it. He has seen everything.

SANDY: Oh, I’d love to.

(He leads them on a slow, loopy tour of the space during the following conversation.)

TESS: And what is this? Oh, it’s a painting? Is it a painting? Ha ha. (He takes a picture.) We all love your paintings up at the agency. Now, who are all these people down in this … uh … pit? What are they doing? Why, it looks as if they are painting copies of that painting. Why, that’s exactly what they are doing. Isn’t that cute? Do you sign them all yourself? I bet you do. Ha ha.

SANDY: Would you like to sign one? (Gives her a brush.)

TESS: Really? Oh no! I’m not a painter. I can’t do this. Really? Oh, I’d love to. Why not? (Starts to sign, stops. To DICKIE, aside) What name?

DICKIE: What?

TESS: What name am I supposed to sign?

DICKIE: I don’t know.

TESS: Ask him.

DICKIE: Excuse me, uh, Sandy. Can I ask you a question? What name, uh, is she to sign? Ha ha. Her name? With title? Your name? My name? Ha ha.

SANDY (To TESS, suddenly): Don’t touch my painting. (He snatches the brush out of her hand.)

TESS: What? What are you doing? (He takes a picture and walks on.) Where are you going? Oh, yes. (To DICKIE) I must have misunderstood.

DICKIE: I feel like a complete fool. (They follow SANDY.)

TESS (Brightly): Excuse me, Mr. Morphol, Sandy, we really have to talk, will you please …

(He stops and looks at her blankly. Long pause.)

SANDY: You’re so beautiful!

(He takes a picture. After another long, blank pause, he resumes leading her about the stage.)

TESS: Why, this is enormous! I had no idea you had so much space. (Aside, to DICKIE) What should I say?

DICKIE: You don’t have to talk. If you were going to talk, I would have written you some remarks. Or at least some talking points. Some bullets. I wouldn’t put you out there unprepared.

TESS: Shut up.

SANDY: Is it big?

TESS: I call this enormous. It’s bigger than my office. It’s bigger than my whole floor. And I think you have more staff. Who are all these people?

SANDY: But you don’t do anything.

TESS: I beg your pard-on.

SANDY: This is not an office. This is a manufacturing business.

TESS: Ha ha. Well, for example, who are they? Those young people. Why are they naked? What are they doing?

SANDY: Oh, they’re my models. They have fitness classes when I am not using them. I need them to be perfect. Aren’t they pretty?

TESS: Very … very pretty. And what are those people doing over there on those … uh … mats? Good heavens.

SANDY: They are fucking and sucking.

TESS: Well, I see that. Uh … what for?

SANDY: See the camera?

TESS: It’s pointing at me.

SANDY: We’re making a movie.

DICKIE: He tapes everything now that it’s so cheap.

TESS: Will you shut up? (SANDY takes a picture of her.)

SANDY: I hope you don’t mind.

TESS (Recovering her dignity): I do mind being filmed without prior agreement. Without an arrangement. Of course I do. I will have my agent call you. Now can we go on, please? (She turns her back on the camera. SANDY has walked away.)

DICKIE: This is good footage. Don’t be so darn up-tight.

TESS: If I want advice, I’ll ask.

DICKIE: Sorry.

TESS: I don’t do porn.

DICKIE: But you look divine today. I mean it. This is one of your best days. You are like a love goddess presiding over the orgy. Athena never looked so good.

TESS (Turns, smiling at the unseen camera, posing): You’re sweet to say so. Now will you get the fuck out of my frame? (Smiles)

DICKIE: Sorry. I mean, this is not the news, this is art. He worships you. He will show it at the Modern. Nowhere else. He promised.

TESS: So you did this. I should have known. Jerk. I never give it away, and I have never done porn. It’s outrageous. You’re out, you know. Finished. Did you imagine you could get away with this? Oh, I don’t believe it! (Smiles at camera. Flash. SANDY returns. He now wields a small hand-held tape recorder, which he holds out toward her shyly.) Now what?

Trouble3

Jimmy Camicia, Kathryn Chilson, and Alfred St. John Smith in “Trouble”

DICKIE: Sandy would like to interview you for his magazine.

TESS: Well?

DICKIE: Say something.

TESS: What is the question?

DICKIE: What do you think of the sweatshop?

TESS: Can’t he talk? (To SANDY) Excse me, why don’t you call my office for an appointment.

DICKIE: He doesn’t phone.

TESS: I forgot. Enormous. Large staff. Fascinating. (To DICKIE) What does he want? (To SANDY) What do you want?

SANDY: Smile. (Offstage flash)

TESS (Heading for the elevator): If you need money, talk to my money people. I am sure we can help you.

SANDY: Are you sure?

TESS: I am quite sure. (To DICKIE) Push the button. (To SANDY) If you need a building, talk to my building people. If you need a project, talk to my project people. If you need people, talk to my people people. Ha ha. Anything you want. We’re here to serve.

SANDY: Oh, I think you’re so nice. I’m just thrilled that you could come.

(Elevator arrives. TESS and DICKIE get in.)

TESS: Bye bye.

SANDY: Bye bye.

DICKIE: Bye bye. Kiss kiss.

(Elevator door closes.)

TESS: God! I don’t believe you did that, you spineless wimp! Press the fucking button. What have I done to deserve such assholes? Get us out of here. You’re through at the department. You’re through in government. Just forget it. Try something else. You don’t do that, understand? God, I sound like him. (Elevator door opens.) Find your own way back.

(Leaves, leaving DICKIE alone in the elevator. Lights fade out.)

 

III

TROUBLE AT WORK

TESS in her office at the Department of Arts and Culture. She is seated at her desk, in profile to the audience. Behind her is a large plant in front of a large round window commanding a view of a wall of office windows. She is wearing curlers in her hair, partly covered by a scarf. She speaks into a small tape recorder of the type reporters use.

TESS: January twelfth, thirteenth… whatever it is. Who cares what day it is? I mean, I don’t have to keep track of the damn date. Look it up in the New Yorker. So. This is the day that I die. Oh, I’m not bitter. It’s all show business. That harpy spells it all out in her smarmy self-regarding supposedly cosmopolitan I-told-you-so style. Go through every little thing I’ve done for the past two, three, four years and make me look like a jerk. What do I care? I’ve got the money. Ha ha. What did the Big Boy have for lunch? What color are the flowers in front of the Big House? Why do they keep the old battle-ax around? She’s rude. She’s slow. She’s presumptuous. And we go on smiling and acting polite. Because she’s press. Get out of my way, you drunken scum. They’re killing me. Not the body, not the mind, not even the personal me—I’m still here. Not the career—I’ve done enough. Then what? What dies?

(She pauses the machine and swivels away to look out the window; then back to the recorder.)

Reputation. But who knows what their real reputation is anyway? Nobody tells you the truth. Nobody says anything. Do you know what it’s like to be under the knife … strike that … under investigation? Of course you don’t. You don’t know anything but what I tell you. Stupid machine. Well, you never know what they will find. Anyway I am a person who wants to tell all. I have a fabulous story and I want it told. I’m not afraid of being found out. I want to be known. I don’t mean famous. I’ve been famous. Oh, why does everything have to be so hidden? I hate it! I want to write my autobiography and tell the whole story, not just who did what but what we thought of each other. My lawyer says no. I haven’t done anything wrong. It makes me just sick the way we’re stuck in this make-believe. People have insides, for God’s sake. Paragraph. Of course, my business affairs are no one else’s business. One has to be reasonably discreet—a certain… remoteness is both the price and the reward of fame.

(The phone buzzes.)

Good line.

(She breaks off and answers it.)

Yes?... No, of course not. Certainly not. Don’t be ridiculous. I told you. They can’t come in here. I’m working. I said I would cooperate and I will. I will give them anything they want, but that does not include nosing through my things and fucking up my schedule. Ask them what they want. Fishing is not kosher.

(Hangs up. Back to recorder:)

Oh, God, I don’t believe I said that. Fishing is not kosher. And how would I know? I don’t know what the rules are anymore, if there still are any rules. They’re not playing by any rules. They’ll get me any way they can.

(The phone buzzes. She breaks off and answers it.)

Yes?... Oh, good.

(She pushes a button on the phone to take the call. In a different voice:)

Tai Kwee, sweetie, it’s so sweet of you to call… Oh, that’s sweet. I’ve been thinking of you, too… Don’t cry, sweetie… There, now, I know how you feel. How do you think I feel?... Well, I know, it’s too bad about the job… No, no, no, you were fine… Really… Remember, honey, a nightmare is only a dream, even though it’s a nightmare at the time. You can wake up. Now I want you to wake up, Tai Kwee. Are you awake? O.K., the reality is, you didn’t do anything wrong, and I didn’t do anything wrong either. Got that? I gave you a job because I knew your mother and she said you’d be good. How do you think people get jobs?... Is this a clean phone? You’re not at home, are you? I told you not to call me from home… God, no, don’t go on teevee! Don’t let them into your house, for God’s sake! You’ll look ridiculous. Take my word for it… Oh, shit!... The truth? What truth? The truth is whatever you can make of it, consistent with the facts, and they don’t know the facts. And you don’t know the facts. So don’t think you do… No, don’t tell them what you know because you only know half the story and half of that is wrong. And they’ll turn all of it against you and me… Gabe? Gimme a break… Shit… Well, try to be cool, for God’s sake. He’s not going to make you into a star, he’ll make you into a laughingstock. Sincerity doesn’t help. Nobody cares about a patsy… Just fake it. You’re better of faking it, believe me. Nobody can tell. Nobody knows the difference. There is no difference… Sweetie, listen. Work on your smile. I mean it, in front of the mirror. A good smile is worth a million bucks… No, now don’t cry… Oh God… Tai Kwee, sweetie, I have to go now… Tai Kwee… I have a meeting. Call me later. No, don’t call me, I won’t be here, I’ll call you. Bye bye. Bye bye. Bye bye.

(Hangs up.)

Jeez Louise.

(Buzzes intercom.)

Where was I?... Now!?... Oh, all right, why not?

(Hangs up. She rises and paces the room like a tiger. DICKIE enters carrying a large pile of overflowing file folders, followed by a mannish female PROGRAM COORDINATOR wearing a tweed suit and a bow tie. DICKIE arranges the files on TESS’s desk, and the two of them stand behind their chairs expectantly. TESS continues to pace. Tension mounts. She stops.)

I have an idea. Let’s play musical chairs. Whoever doesn’t get a chair loses their job. Ha ha.

(They all quickly sit.)

O.K. We all have chairs. Now tell me what you represent. (They look blank.) What art are you? (Pointing at DICKIE) Ballet? Opera? The drama? (Pointing at PROGRAM COORDINATOR) Painting? Poetry? Photography? What is it you do? Oh, I forgot, sculpture. So how’s it going? What else? Music! Well, I’ll be music… Why don’t I have a piano in here?

(To DICKIE)

I’m talking to you. I want a piano in here! All right, what is this, the contracts? Are you still harping on the contracts? You’ve told me dozens of times. I get the message. I know, we really do have to get these contracts out. Well, now I got a message from the boys downtown. I think it was a message from the Big Boy. So I want them done, do you hear?

(She bangs her hand on the table.)

No more fucking around. But I am not going to go through them right now. You can’t just barge in here and force me to drop everything and deal with your problem at your convenience. So forget it. You are not the only people with problems. These contracts are not the most important thing in the world. All right, let me see one.

(DICKIE opens the top folder and hands her a sheaf of papers, which she looks at.)

I don’t know. Something’s wrong here. This doesn’t feel right to me. Send it to fiscal. Send it to legal. Send it downtown.

(Throws down the papers. Rises and strides about the room.)

This year’s motto is, No mistakes. Don’t take any chances. Keep your head down. Look, I have a splitting headache…

(The phone buzzes.)

Dickie, will you get that?

(She walks out the door. DICKIE reaches across her desk for the phone, but before he can answer it she comes back in and takes it rather peremptorily out of his hand.)

Never mind, I’m here, I’m all right. (Into phone) What is it?... Tell him to hold on.

(Puts the call on hold and gestures with the receiver. To DICKIE, indicating papers)

I don’t want to see all this. Look, this is what I want. For each… group… I want just the contract, ready for my signature, and I want a memo over your signature… (To the PROGRAM COORDINATOR) ... telling me they should get the grant, and I want a memo over your signature… (To DICKIE) ... telling me any little things that I shold know. Any possible problems. Is that clear? Nothing more. Is that perfectly clear? (DICKIE starts to speak.) Hold on a minute. Excuse me.

(Turns away from him and takes the call in a hushed, throaty voice.)

Honey, thank God you called. Where are you?... No, I understand. Well, how are you? Are you all right? Are you too lonesome? Are you busy?... No, I haven’t. I’m seeing them tomor—(Breaks off. To the OTHERS) Would you excuse me? (Indicates the door. Waits for them to leave. Into phone) Honey? Are you there? I’m seeing them tomorrow downtown… No, across the street. I am no longer welcome at the Big House, how do you like that? It’s terrible. We used to have so much fun. I love campaigning. Anyway I used to. What a rush! You’re always the center of attention. You plunge into any situation at all and just grab everybody’s attention and put on your show. What you’re talking about is important so you can force them to take it. They don’t just have to listen to you, they have to like you, and then because they like you, you force them to agree with you. They have to put aside their contrary ideas for the sake of higher goals. Really. It’s outrageous… What?... I know I do… What?... You’re kidding! When?... They’re just jealous… You and me, honey, of you and me. What are you going to do?... No… Why?... No, don’t, don’t… Honey… Can I… Can I see you?...

(Checks her watch.)

O.K…. O.K…. Honey… Honey…

(She slowly hangs up. Long pause while she thinks. DICKIE and the PROGRAM COORDINATOR file in again, DICKIE now carrying a single, rather thick folder. They sit at the conference table and DICKIE opens the folder. TESS leaves. The lights fade out.)

 

IV

ANY TIME, BABE

A jail cell in Pennsylvania, later that month. The stage is bare except for bars.

Trouble4

Dino Roscigno and Joshua Levine in “Trouble”

Flashbulbs offstage. GAOLER leads RANDY in. RANDY, a beefy, macho mafia type, is already talking.

RANDY: ... We didn’t hit any old lady with any shopping cart. We woulda stopped. Whadda ya think, we’re amateurs? We woulda stopped. Maybe we went around some traffic. Maybe we cut across. So what. I was in a hurry. I had stuff to do. People. People waiting. I asked my guys and we didn’t do it. I woulda noticed. I was on the phone but I see what’s going on. (GAOLER takes off the handcuffs and leaves. RANDY goes right on talking.) Can I get a phone in here? I’m not kidding, I’m serious. Never mind. I know, you’re not the guy. Anyway, Big Tony is not happy about this, so what am I supposed to do? Goose the goose, right? That’s the way I left it. This is a fuckin bummer, man. What am I supposed to do, jack off all day?

(RANDY breaks off when, the gaoler having left, the prison din cuts in. Hold this until it becomes really irritating. Then the GAOLER comes in downstage of the bars and stands facing the audience indifferently. Din fades slightly.)

RANDY (cont.): I thought what you had to do was get a lot of money and then you were safe. Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do? It’s easy to say it’s easy but it isn’t easy. You don’t have any money, right? You have a mortgage, and a car loan, and three or four kids, and your wife has a couple of kids from somewhere, they all want computers, they all have to wear clothes, so how late are you on the mortgage? Six months? A year? You just go on paying the late charge. Am I right? And you’re not taking care of the car. It was perfect when it came out of the box. Now it’s shit. But you have this attitude about money, don’t you, that if you wanted to make money, which you make sound like goat snot, you could easily make a lot of money but you’re into other stuff, like this other stuff was superior, more human, which you’re not doing anyway. So you buy lottery tickets as if you was going to mass every day and figure when you get the money you’ll be safe. Right? Am I right?

GAOLER: Just take it easy.

RANDY: That’s what I figured. Funny how it turned out, huh? They can just take it away from you. They will, too. I figured it was my money because it was my company and I could do whatever I wanted. If they didn’t like the way I wrote my taxes, we could fix it later. I’d pay. Whatever. We could work it out. But no. They take it all and wreck it. They take all the dope and burn it, for God’s sake. They sell the car, which I had all set up. They put me out of business. What’s the point? I was making money for them and now I’m costing them money. (Pause) You ever been driven around in a big car? Except a wedding or a funeral? It’s pleasant. You don’t have to worry about a thing. There’s guys in the front but you tune em out unless a call comes in or you want somethin. God. I love those guys, and who’s gonna take care of them now? Who’s gonna pay them? Who can they love the way they loved me?

GAOLER: I’m going to cry.

RANDY: Well, it’s sad, you should cry.

GAOLER: It’s not that sad. You gambled and lost. Most people lose. No big deal.

RANDY: Maybe for you. You’re a loser anyway. I’m a winner. I’ve always been a big winner.

GAOLER: Live and learn.

RANDY: Fuck you. (GAOLER leaves. Din only. GAOLER returns. Now he stand on the other side.) I’m sorry. I was upset.

GAOLER: It’s your ass, man.

RANDY: You don’t like me.

GAOLER: I don’t like disrespect. I like respect. I’m a cog in the machine, it’s nothing personal, but you say fuck you again, it will cost you three months. Just think about is it worth it.

RANDY: Fuck you. I’m kidding. I just say fuck you. No big deal. Nothing personal. Shit.

(GAOLER leaves. Lights change. Prison din is replaced by sound of surf and sea birds. RANDY walks through the cell walls and TESS sails in, informal but gorgeous and regal. Flash back to a month earlier, at one of the Hamptons.)

TESS: So what do they know?

RANDY: They know numbers. They know taps. They know what your friends tell them. Jesus. Why do you keep thinking you have friends? I don’t have friends. If people think they’re your friend they’ll rat on you. Keep your distance and they’ll rat on you anyway but they won’t know nothin.

TESS: What kind of person are you?

RANDY: Not me. Not you. I don’t mean you and me, babe. You’re my queen. You’re my wildest dream come true. You’re my golden crown. You wouldn’t ever rat on me yourself?

TESS: What do you mean myself? Look, I came clear the hell out here.

RANDY: You’re a great woman. Nobody really appreciates that. How was the traffic? This is a helluva time to drive to the Hamptons.

TESS: I’m immune to traffic. Anyway I flew. I have your card, remember?

RANDY: Any time, babe, any time.

TESS: I’m crazy about you, Randy. I never had a real man before. Those other slimeballs just weren’t up to speed. Maybe I didn’t realize it at the time. Maybe I did. I don’t know. I don’t mean they couldn’t get it up, but they didn’t know how to take care of me like you do. It gives me the shivers.

RANDY: I’ll take care of you.

TESS: They were like agents. Managers. I was their trick card.

RANDY: You do your own tricks.

TESS: You bet.

RANDY: Forget those fuckers.

TESS: Who? Who? Are you referring to my former husbands? Are you referring to my mother? Are you referring to my friends?

RANDY: Your friends. Fuck your friends.

TESS: I mean the boys downtown. Man, are they uptight. They’ve got a moat around them. They’ve got a drawbridge. They’ve got a portcullis and they cut the chains. Down it comes, wham. Just missed me. Suddenly I’m on the other side. The outside. It’s like we’re not the same species anymore. They changed my character in the middle of the play. I look the same, I act the same, I do the same things but everything means something completely different.

RANDY: You look great.

TESS: I don’t have to look young forever… Do I? (Pause. Sea sounds slowly fade away.) What I want to know is, why didn’t somebody say something? Fuckin wimps. Excuse my French.

RANDY: I know. I brought you down. You don’t owe me nothin. I’m sorry what I cost you. I haven’t got any claim, and you don’t need me.

TESS: Honey, honey, I’m not gonna dump you, I love you. So they got us by the balls. Their turn will come. The reaper cuts the high grass with the low. Settle down, now. This will be a whole new rhythm. One long Sunday.

RANDY: I’ll be forty-six when I get out. Old. Do you think I can make it back before I hit fifty?

TESS: I know you can.

RANDY: I mean the ten mill.

TESS: I know what you mean. I’m not stupid. You think you’re getting old. What about me?

RANDY: What about you?

TESS: God knows. It’s turned into a nightmare. It’s our own fault. We had to love the press. They treated us like royalty, and we forgot who they are. They’re sharks, piranhas, vultures, jackals, microbes, maggots. They got no taste. They got no class. They don’t care about nothin. Escalator Gobbles Mom. If they can’t get blood shots they grab any shot they can get. Anything. Shopping. I have to eat, for God’s sake. Taking out the laundry. Getting into the car. Lifting the andirons. They get it on tape and then they can bring it out any time they want and run it again and again until it is burned into people’s tubes like it meant something. Did you see me walking out with her andirons?

RANDY (Laughing): You’re wonderful! You’re such a pro. I shit.

TESS: Cut it out. It isn’t funny. (Pause)

RANDY: I mean it.

TESS: Thanks.

(Pause. Prison din fades in as RANDY retreats into cell.)

RANDY: Just get me a phone. I can’t function without a phone. What, I get you and one other person and a lawyer? I need a phone! I can set it up with Bernie if I have a phone. You can say anything to Bernie. Don’t talk to anyone else.

(TESS has walked out, into flashbulbs, and the GAOLER has returned. Long hold.)

GAOLER: I can get you a phone.

RANDY: What?

GAOLER: You heard me. (Pause)

RANDY: So? Do it.

(TESS reenters downstage and talks with GAOLER. RANDY turns away.)

TESS: He doesn’t like it here. You understand what I am saying? This is a man who has needs that can’t be met in a situation like this. Do you take my meaning?

GAOLER: So?

TESS: Do you ever come into the city? We could meet. Call me. Come to dinner. (Gives him a card.) I have a very good cook. What do you like? Something … unusual?

GAOLER: Cooking is my hobby.

TESS: Really.

GAOLER: I would like to be a chef.

TESS: Perhaps you should open a restaurant.

GAOLER: I would like that.

TESS: I probably can help you. The thing is, why would I want to?

GAOLER: I am getting him a phone.

TESS: I don’t mean that. I mean, get him a phone, he needs one. But as I said…

GAOLER: He doesn’t like it here. Well, who does? You think I like it here? What else? Does anybody like their life? I’m doing it but I don’t like it, you know? I don’t even pretend to like it.

TESS: I want him out.

GAOLER: I can’t do that.

TESS: No, ha ha, of course not. Too bad.

(She leaves. Din. GAOLER follows her out.)

RANDY (On the phone): Gimme Bernie. (Pause) Bernie. Good. Ready? O.K. First call J.J. Don’t say anything, just listen. Two. Go see Mr. T. He will give you a folder, and it better be a fat one. Take it to the usual place. Leave the car. Take a taxi. Now look. Are you listening? (Pause) Good. Three. Get rid of the Lincoln. Get something else. I don’t care what. Indulge yourself. Ha ha. Good. Four. Move the offshore stuff. Cayman, B.V.I., whatever. Start it moving and keep it moving. And no funny business. I’m not in here forever. You wanna take my place, this would be a good time. Ha ha. If a lady calls you, do what she asks. What lady? How many ladies we know? (Pause) Sure. I love it. Don’t be a jerk.

(Hangs up. Sound changes. Sunlight downstage. TESS enters in a bathing suit, high heels, sun glasses, maybe a hat. It’s Westhampton. GAOLER follows, also in swimwear. They gaze out. Pause.)

GAOLER: Pretty pool. (Pause) I bet you miss him.

TESS: Shut up. I’m thinking.

GAOLER: What’s to think? He’s out of there tonight. He’s out of the country tomorrow. There’s no link. I’m clean. You’re clean. I mean on this one. The escape.

TESS: Just shut up.

GAOLER: I’m there all the time, working on my menu. Nobody saw me with you. Nobody saw you with me. We never spoke. You think I’m Californian. Right? You heard about my cooking. Your kid discovered me in Sausalito. I have a different name. You don’t have to be too specific. Blow them off.

TESS: Where did you say you got your tan?

GAOLER: I don’t tan. I just like the way it feels on my body.

TESS: O.K., so when do I see him?

GAOLER: You don’t see him. He’s gone.

TESS (Suddenly hysterical): You’ve got some nerve. You know what the press will do with this? You know what this will do to the boys downtown? You know what they’ll do to me? You must be out of your fucking gourd.

(Picks up phone and so does RANDY in his cell. Their lines overlap. Sea sound fades out. GAOLER splits.)

RANDY: Listen, babe, this is not so smart. I don’t want out of here this way. I just want to move. I want to do my time in the city and do it fast and get back in the business.

TESS: Honey, honey, I thought you wanted out.

RANDY: Call it off. Call it all off right now.

TESS: So don’t go. Stay there and rot. I’m not forcing anything on you. I just love you. That’s all.

RANDY: Fine, fine. Look, so I complain. So I said a few things I shouldn’t of said. I just got here. So you got the message wrong.

TESS: What are you saying?

RANDY: I’m saying this is fun, this is funny, I like you a lot, I don’t want anything bad to happen, thanks for everything, but butt out of my business. I’ve got a timetable here. I’ve got a couple of years to spend and then it’s all straightened out. Don’t fuck it up any more.

TESS (Wailing): Honey, wait. Calm down. Try to see it my way. You’ve got a few years but I haven’t got a few years. This is it, the only time. We can go to Mexico. Morocco. Greece. One of the islands. It’s heaven there. They’ll never find us. Trust me.

RANDY: Ha ha. You can’t walk across the driveway it’s all over the Post. You’ve got Channel 7 for life, babe. Whole careers are tied onto your tail. That asshole sticking his mike in your face, like you was supposed to lick it. Mike Taibbi. Get used to it. Don’t kid yourself. He’ll follow you to hell, but this ain’t hell. I was kidding.

TESS: I can’t believe … Hold on.

(Exit, leaving the phone off the hook. Prison din fades in and she immediately reenters upstage in a raincoat with the GAOLER, who ushers her into RANDY’s cell.)

GAOLER: You have five minutes.

TESS: Five minutes? I drive all the way to Allentown and you say five minutes. The rule is he gets an hour.

GAOLER: He used it already. (Exit)

TESS (To RANDY, through the din): I can’t believe this is happening to us. Honey, hang up. Listen, we have five minutes.

RANDY: Hey, babe, it’s great to see you. Thanks for coming. You’re lookin great.

TESS: Was somebody else here?

RANDY: So everything is working out. I got my phone. Friday they’re moving me into the city. I’ve been workin out every day. I was fat, you know that? You like me fat? I’m feelin good. I haven’t felt this good since the divorce. Ha ha. Nothing that bitch got is worth a fuckin cent. Ha ha. She wants the good life, let her work. Ha ha. Bernie’s covering his ass. The jobs are getting done. What more can a fella want? So, you selling any books?

TESS: I miss you, honey.

RANDY: Yeah, well, I miss you. It ain’t the same, believe me.

TESS: I’m scared.

RANDY: Don’t be scared. You won’t do any time.

TESS: But what about us?

RANDY: You got a problem? Something I don’t know about? Tell me, I’ll take care of it.

TESS: The card. The card doesn’t work.

RANDY: Yeah, well, sorry about that. What else?

TESS: Don’t play dumb. It’s all over, isn’t it? You don’t love me anymore.

RANDY: I’ll always love you, babe. You know it’s true. My time just ain’t my own right now. Have a heart.

TESS: You never did love me.

RANDY: Fuck, my mother loved you. What is this?

TESS: Well, you’re a great lay.

RANDY: Any time, babe. I mean it.

(GAOLER enters.)

GAOLER: That’s all, folks.

(Tess goes out, head high. Flashes off. RANDY smiles.)

Copyright © 1997. All rights reserved.

Reviews

from the Santa Barbara News-Press, May 7, 1998:

by Philip Brandes

“Government has no place in the bedroom,” fumes a politician as his administration is rocked by scandal. Irony? Or a throwback to more genteel sensibilities?

Either way, the complications spell “Trouble” in Michael Smith’s comedy at Center Stage Theater.

“Trouble” is a fictionalized meditation on the notorious headlines surrounding Bess Myerson, the former Miss America who served as Commission of Cultural Affairs for New York’s Mayor Ed Koch. Myerson’s glamorous quasi-political career came to a crashing halt when it was revealed she had bestowed a cushy job on the daugher of the judge who was presiding over the messy divorce settlement of Myerson’s lover.

Rather than dwelling on the salacious elements of the case, Smith’s play is a more thoughtful exploration of the scandal’s intersecting spheres of politics, the arts, and individual passions. Told through a quartet of interlocking but self-contained vignettes, the unfolding scandal provides the backdrop for starkly sketched portraits.

Gloria Rossi plays the Myerson figure, Tess Byerson, as an irrepressible busybody with an amusingly imperious hauteut—a culture yenta, as it were. Treading her way through the media spotlight with an inflated persona worthy of Norma Desmond, she’s a convincing magnet for attention.

Yet there’s also an uncertainty underlying Tess’s hollow bravado that makes her sympathetic. She’s clearly out of her depth in the art world, as we see when she locks horns with a hilarious Polaroid-snapping Warhol-esque painter (Matt Armor) over his exploitation of “sweatshop” artists to produce his work for him. The irony, of course, is that she does as little to earn her money as he does.

Tess’s fall is frequently framed in a kind of surreal comic detachment reminscent of comedian Steven Wright. Trapped in an elevator with Tess on their way to an appointment, her aide (Ben Bottoms, schizophrenically attired in black and brown shoes and multiple ties) remarks with flawless deadpan, “We appear to have several minutes of being early before we start being late.” In the final, and most affecting, scene, Tess confronts her lover (well played by Laezer Schlomkowitz) in the prison where he is serving time for tax evasion. A peek under the public veneer, it reveals a hidden vulnerability in Tess’s desperation to keep their love alive in the face of her jailbird beau’s callous rantings.

Director Maurice Lord sustains a brisk pace and effective comic inflections. Keven Strasburg’s modular sets facilitate the strategic location shifts, and Smith’s atmospheric lighting is an integral part of the shifting tonal balance.

from off-off-online.com, January 12, 2006

by Marlon Hurt

The four vignettes that make up Michael Smith’s new piece, “Trouble,” now playing at 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 1950s and 60s, 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 Caffè 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 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 energ 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 than anything needed improving at all. Still, as anyone who’s contemplated the paradix 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.