Secrets of the Trade
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
August 5, 2010
Jonathan Tolins's new play, Secrets of the Trade, is an entertaining dramedy about the growth of Andy Lipman, from a 16-year-old theatre artist-wannabe to a 26-year-old professional writer learning to live with the inevitable compromises of adult life. It features the young actor Noah Robbins, who starred last fall on Broadway as Neil Simon's 15-year-old alter-ego Eugene Morris Jerome in the short-lived revival of Brighton Beach Memoirs; here, again, Robbins demonstrates a theatrical know-how and presence that belie his youth and matches note for note the shrewdly restrained performance of John Glover as Andy's mentor, the multi-talented, larger-than-life (but not particularly flamboyant) Martin Kerner.
The play is said to be semi-autobiographical, which may be reflected in the twin throughlines that run parallel courses through Secrets. One concerns Andy's relationship with Kerner, which begins when teenaged Andy writes the famed theatre director/playwright a fan letter, and continues through a series of meetings and encounters across a decade that help Andy find his way into his craft without ever actually tangibly helping Andy forge a career. (Guided by his indulgent, ambitious-for-him dad, Andy keeps asking for internships and apprenticeships, requests that Kerner fields with a skilled vagueness.)
We sense that Andy is gay before he seems to, and the relationship with Kerner—a much older, closeted gay man (the play is set during the 1980s)—feels fraught with sexual tension. That this turns out to be a huge red herring in Tolins's story isn't exactly disappointing, but it makes a lot of the plotting, especially in Act One, feel like a bait-and-switch trap for the audience, luring us in with prurience and then delivering decency.
Despite Glover's skillful turn in the role, I never quite got a handle on Kerner. I couldn't think of a theatre personality from the period who wielded the kind of influence that Kerner is supposed to have; and—call me cynical—I found it hard to swallow his explanations for why he's so willing to spend time with a young man whose promise as a playwright and director he's only had the merest evidence of.
More convincing, for me, is the second thread of Tolins's story, which concerns Andy and his parents, Joanne and Peter. I loved the genuinely loving, caring relationship depicted among this family of intelligent, articulate people. Tolins gives Joanne and Peter many of the show's funniest and smartest lines, and Amy Aquino and Mark Nelson create a married couple of depth and feeling whose interplay rings very true. The problem with this part of the play, though, is that Andy—his awkward coming-out moments notwithstanding—gets on great with his parents; and so the play's would-be Glass Menagerie/Broadway Bound cataclysmic finding-yourself aspect proves to be kind of a non-starter here: there's lots of love in this family, but very little angst, deception, or misunderstanding.
Nonetheless, for the most part I enjoyed spending time with Andy and these people who help shape him. There's a detour into a cliched parody of "experimental theatre" in Act Two that the play could probably do without; and there's a fifth character, Kerner's assistant Bradley (sympathetically played by Bill Brochtrup), who could use more development. Matt Shakman's direction is easy and fluid, on a functional set by Mark Worthington, with appropriate costumes by Alejo Vietti and lighting by Mike Durst. The provocative Tolins of his most famous play (Twilight of the Golds) isn't particularly in evidence here, but the chronicler of a certain kind of social mores of the post-baby-boom generation is operating on all cylinders in this late summer NYC premiere at Primary Stages.