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A CurtainUp Review
Secrets of the Trade

Don't let anybody tell you it has to be a certain way, you have to be like this or that. Your life can be anything you want. You can do whatever you want to do, howeveryou want to do it. —Kerner
Secrets of the Trade
Left to right: Noah Robbins and John Glover
(Photo credit: James Leynse )
Based on his wobbly track record in New York with three plays — The Twilight of the Golds (1993), If Memory Serves (1999) The Last Sunday in June (2003)— Jonathan Tolins would have every reason to be a little nervous about the reception to his latest play Secrets of the Trade. This egregiously underrated playwright can finally be duly credited for giving us the one and only new play to open this summer that deserves to run into the fall and beyond. It's a lovely, winning, and witty coming-of-age story that seems to be not only evocatively rooted to the author's frame of reference but also to his personal experiences in the theater.

  Tolins' love of the theater, its traps as well as its trappings, is exemplified by this thoroughly endearing story of a precocious and talented theatre-intoxicated young man whom we get to see grow up before our eyes. A splendid cast of five, under the sensitive and joyously invigorating direction of Matt Shakman, has created some of the most endearingly self-incriminating personae we have come across in a long while.

  If Tolins' themes have heretofore dealt primarily with the various issues of being gay in a rarely empathetic society, the most compelling impetus behind Secrets of the Trade is the affection he has not only for his protagonist Andrew Lipman (Noah Robbins,) but also for Martin Kerner (John Glover) a famous, aging, seasoned, and wise gay writer/director who serves as his mentor. The dialogue throughout the play sparkles with a humor that is as deeply embedded as is its smartness.

  The year is 1980, Long Island, NY. Andrew is 16 and no dummy. At the beginning of the play, he is about to enter his freshman year at Harvard. The action moves almost flippantly through the years and at various locations and ends with Andrew at 26 working in Hollywood as TV writer/director. Through it all, he affectionately shares, by means of a disarming narrative, his relationship with Kerner, the unsettling angst that comes with immaturity, a romantic attachment with another student at Harvard, and the inevitable parental conflicts. Andrew's asides will undoubtedly remind many of the device used by Neil Simon in his Brighton Beach Memoirs. How clever (or perhaps not) to have cast the immediately ingratiating Robbins, who recently starred as Simon's young protagonist, in the ill-fated, but wonderful revival early last season.

  What a pleasure to report that Glover is adding another memorable character to his extraordinary resume. He is brilliant as the often irrational, volatile yet often paternal mentor who helps Andrew feel comfortable with his sexuality. The question of whether Kerner is or is not inclined to come through and do something for the idolizing neophyte becomes moot in the play's bittersweet resolve.

  The affinity that Andrew feels for the theater since childhood is respected by his adoring parents Peter (Mark Nelson), an architect, and Joanne (Amy Aquino), formerly a dancer and now a disenchanted high school English teacher. With their full support, Andrew sent off a (delightfully composed) letter of introduction to Kerner, a man whose illustrious career he has been following: "Dear Mr. Kerner, congratulations on winning six Tony awards for both writing and directing. By the way, my father says you could use my help."

  Not unexpected is the eventual shift taken by Andrew's protective and attentive parents. Joanne, who once auditioned for Kerner, has the most qualms. A show-down scene with Kerner is especially fine as it takes an unexpected turn. Peter is more inclined to presuppose a potential opportunity for his son. Projecting mixed signals and with increasingly conflicted emotions, they begin to grapple with the nature of Andrew's deepening regard for Kerner.

  This aspect of the plot is most appealing as it isn't fabricated on the seduction of the innocent. But what we do see is the instinctive bonding that is established and almost formally handed down from one generation to the next in the theatre as well as in a family. The poignant and peppery truths that propel Tolins' play become clear when Andrew is 26 and looks back. In a letter to Kerner he writes, "I see it now, every day. Wherever I go, whatever I see, read, or think, is filtered through what I learned from you. Those lunches and late-night phone calls gave me the tools to look, and to make something of what I find."

  Certainly, Andrew's parents, as appealingly played by Nelson and Aquino, would have it no other way except that they would have preferred to be the dominant mentors. Nelson invests plenty of unsaid emotional heft into his role as the father who reflects on how a missed opportunity changed his life. An opportunity for Nelson to be funny, however, isn't missed as he also plays a waiter at Café des Artistes. Kerner has invited Andrew to have lunch with him and proceeds to chatter and do more than a little dropping of famous names. The scene is made hilarious by the omnipresence of the waiter who, standing aloof, clinks a glass with a spoon at the precise moment Kerner drops another name (never to be heard) with ever increasing tempi. Glover and Nelson perform what could conceivably be called a musical tour de force. Aquino also gets hearty laugh in a cameo appearance as a self-absorbed theatrical agent.

  Mark Worthington's simple but artfully designed (an especially whimsical evocation of the nude murals at the Café des Artistes) settings would be worthy of a small-scaled musical. This deftly written, often uproariously funny, play may not disclose all the secrets of the trade, but some of them are revealed with sensitivity in a beautifully subtle performance by Bill Brochtrup as Kerner's much younger long-time assistant. The most important thing to know is that Secrets of the Trade is finally, after a long gestation, * less of a secret now that it is on stage in New York.

  Secrets of the Trade was originally commissioned by South Coast Rep in 1996 but not produced. Los Angeles' Black Dahlia theatre produced it in 2008.

Secrets of the Trade
  By Jonathan Tolins
  Directed by Matt Shakman

  Cast: Mark Nelson (Peter Lipman), Noah Robbins (Andrew Lipman), Amy Aquino (Joanne Lipman), Bill Brochtrup (Bradley), John Glover (Martin Kerner)
  Set Design: Mark Worthington
  Costume Design: Alejo Vietti
  Lighting Design: Mike Durst
  Original Music and Sound Design: John Gromada
  Running Time: 2 hours 25 minutes including intermission
  Primary Stages at 59E59 Theatres, 59 East 59th Street (212) 279 - 4200
  Tickets $60
  Performances: Tuesdays & Wednesdays at 7:00 p.m., Thursdays & Fridays at 8:00 p.m., Saturdays at 2:00 p.m. & 8:00 p.m., with Sunday matinee at 3:00 p.m. on August 15, and Wednesday matinees at 2:00 p.m.
  From 07/27/10; Opened 08/10/10; closing 09/04/10
  Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 08/05/10 .
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