Volume 75, Number 33 | January 4 - 10, 2006

THEATER

From the political stage to Off-Broadway
Four years at City Hall gave birth to Michael Smith’s play, ‘Trouble’

TROUBLE
Written and directed by Michael Smith
Opens January 12 for performances through February 5
Theater for the New City
155 First Avenue at 10th Street
(212-254-1109; theaterforthenewcity.net)

<< Michael Smith, dramatist and former speechwriter for Mayor Ed Koch, based his play “Trouble” on New York’s former Cultural Affairs Commissioner Bess Myerson.
Courtesy Michael Smith

By JERRY TALLMER

The road to City Hall leads through a harpsichord factory in northern Connecticut — and ends up 20 years later as “a compassionate comedy” at Crystal Fields’s off-everything Theater for the New City, First Avenue and 10th Street.

The name of the play is “Trouble.” The playwright is Michael Smith, a lifelong compleat theaterperson — journalist, critic, feature writer, dramatist, lighting man, actor, director, editor — who also happens to have put in four years as a speechwriter for Mayor Ed Koch.

His “Trouble” is a fast-moving, tough-talking, frequently hilarious, ultimately touching amalgam of four “vignettes” in the crisis-ridden career and love-life of a New York City commissioner of cultural affairs named “Tess Byerson.” Those who remember tall, beautiful, difficult, self-involved, gutsy, gallant Bess Myerson, the Miss America of 1945 who became Koch’s commissioner, first of consumer affairs and then of cultural affairs, will perhaps take special pleasure in dialogue like this, the commissioner talking to her boss, the mayor (referred to only as Big Boy):

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 fuck me. Maybe later, after I get them worked up. The men want to HAVE me and the women want to BE me.

Or this, as Tess and her aide, Dickie, in a discussion of art as they’re about to meet the all-media artist Sandy Morphol (Warhol, of course) after having been scarily stuck in an elevator at The Sweatshop (Warhol’s famous The Factory):

TESS: 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’m 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.

There was a time when Michael Smith himself, as a young assistant everything in the early years of The Village Voice, was chasing around to look at metal spaghetti in Brooklyn or half-assed ballets in Queens or whatever off-off-off-off-Broadway plays or dance works I sent him to appraise and report on. He began actually participating in theater, and writing about theater in earnest, around the time he first wandered in to Joe Cino’s extraordinary Caffe Cino on Cornelia Street.

And then, around 1965 or so, he found himself running a theater for harpsichord-maker Wolfgang Zuckermann in Upper Black Eddy, Bucks County, Pennsylvania.

He had got to meet Zuckermann by writing a Voice feature about him “probably before I started reviewing, actually,” Michael said, here in New York, the other day. They became friends, played music and tennis together, Zuckermann in his Christopher Street loft showed Michael how to make a clavichord, a harpsichord. And when Michael voiced a desire to start a theater somewhere in the countryside outside New York, Zuckermann said: “I have a theater in the country.”

Come the early 1970s, Wolfgang Zuckermann went off to Europe; he’s there today in Avignon, France. In 1974, Michael Smith — long after the traumatic breakup of a seven-year companionship with Off-Broadway lighting expert Johnny Dodd — married dancer Michele Hanley, “and was driving cross-country with my pregnant wife to go to work for David Way, the genius who had taken over the harpsichord-manufacturing business from Wolfgang.”

He would in fact work for Way, there in Stonington, Connecticut, for 10 or 11 years — a span that outlasted the marriage — during which decade Michael “started doing plays a little bit.” When he came back down to New York in 1986 — a year after Judith Malina’s husband Julian Beck had died — he called Judith to see if her and Julian’s Living Theater might have any work for him.

The conversation got around to her need for a new building, a new home, for a hoped-for reborn Living Theater. “Do you know anybody who could help?“ she asked.

By then, Daniel Wolf, founding editor of The Village Voice, had with publisher Edwin Fancher sold that journal and was now ensconced at City Hall as an (unpaid) advisor on matters large and small to Mayor Edward I. Koch.

“So I called Dan to ask if he could help find a building for the Living Theater. He said no, but added: ‘Do you need a job?’ ” Michael sure did. He began as assistant press secretary, but soon was promoted to Koch’s chief speechwriter. “And the Bess Myerson story” — the scandal involving Bess, her coarse, crass divorced lover Carl (“Andy”) Capasso, and the Cultural Affairs’ hiring of a daughter of Bess’s friend Judge Hortense Gabel, who was hearing Capasso’s alimony case — “kind of unraveled soon after I got to City Hall.”

No, Michael Smith did not meet, has never met, Bess Myerson, then or now.

Never?

“Never. I had no idea what was going on. I didn’t know Andy Capasso either, but it was all over the papers. I made it up” — everything in “Trouble,” that is. “What I was really fascinated by was the pressures these kinds of people were in, under public scrutiny. For them, it’s two opposed things: though it’s energizing, they have to always be on their guard.”

Yes, he had visited The Factory when it was up in the East 40s (before Union Square), but Andy Warhol had in fact died around the time these other events were taking place.

And Dickie? Tess Byerson’s stoic, much-put-open, often fired, immediately rehired all-purpose aide?

The only thing playwright Smith says is “he’s kind of the consciousness of the play,” but if you see some elements of Michael in Dickie, I don’t think you’d be far off target.

Except that the Michael Smith of Village Voice days was a very nice young man indeed, fresh-faced, willing, tireless, uncomplaining.

True then, true now: the only thing changed is that now the hair is snow white, and Michael’s two sons, Julian, “an activist,” and Alfred, actor/musician, are 30 and 28. Their mother lives in New Mexico. Their father, when he’s not doing a show in New York or elsewhere, lives in Silverton, Oregon, with Carol Storke, “a horsewoman from a newspaper family” who’s been his other half for the past 13 years.

“When I wrote ‘Trouble’ as just little scenes,” white-haired Michael Smith said last week over a cup of coffee, “I was so nervous, I used a pseudonym. I kept it to myself for a long, long time. We finally did a production at Genesis West, a theater I started with Maurice Lord in Santa Barbara, California. When I wanted to find a place for it in New York, I called [the TNC’s] Crystal, whom I’ve known since the ’60s — ever since Judson [the Judson Poets’ Theater].”

Michael himself directs the production. The actors are Jimmy Camicia, Alfred St. John Smith (Michael’s son, as Dickie), Renato R. Biribin, Dino Roscigno, Joshua Levine and Kathryn Chilson as the Tess Byerson at the center of everything. The only phenomenon that’s not part of this play is the anti-Semitism that has stalked all the years of Bess Myerson’s life since they couldn’t keep the crown from her as the first Jewish (from the Bronx yet!) Miss America.

“She went through all this terrible stuff” — the Capasso/Hortense Gabel thing — “and is still a survivor, came through looking pretty good. I was fascinated and touched, and that’s why I call it a compassionate comedy.”

You will too, I think.

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