ONE OF THE PLEASURES OF WATCHING contemporary performance is completely losing track of what's going on onstage, of what it's all supposed to mean. Shows built without clear narratives, with breaks and shifts in style, with nonsensical props or nonsensical speeches, can become the most exciting at the moment you're forced to shut down your left brain and simply watch, ready to be amused or shocked or thrilled. By the time New City Theater reaches that point in its current production, a premiere of the ensemble creation Trouble in the City of Desire, it's a bit too late. The themes of this show have been so clear that it's hard to let go and immerse yourself into the rich theatricality of the presentation.

Trouble was created over the last year through collaborations between New City company members Mary Ewald, Ki Gottberg, and Elizabeth Kenny, with direction by New City artistic director John Kazanjian. For much of its life, the show was simply called "The Girl Piece," a genesis that is apparent in the final version. The show's first third sets up its key tension: Ewald, playing a frazzled professor and mother named Lucy, is tempted and tormented by a pair of women--her licentious daughter Franci (Kenny), and an Annie Sprinkle-like spirit in a bustier named BB (Gottberg). The pair want Lucy to be the kind of woman who can bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, and never let her husband forget he's a man, but she can barely balance her work and home life as it is. It's a generic story at this point, too conventional to support the inventive staging and fervid language of this play.

Franci and BB offer Lucy sexy underwear, dildos, tips from Cosmo, and then lead her into her city of desire, where Lucy and Franci perform pat routines centered on finding the script of the show they're inhabiting. Clothes and accessories drop on lines from the ceiling, relating to various life choices Lucy could have made. Plates rattle on the walls. Franci shows up in a wedding dress covered with menstrual blood. And in the end, Franci swings a little girl around by her arms, while Lucy plays Philip Glass on a piano, and BB paints a Picasso-like woman on the back wall. Taken alone, many of these bits of business are wonderful to watch, but added together they sound and look like formula: off-the-rack components for DIY contemporary performance.

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