Hidden Agendas, Helping Hands Revealed in ‘Secrets’: John Simon

Noah Robbins, left, and John Glover Martin in the Primary Stages production of "Secrets of the Trade." The cast includes Amy Aquino, Bill Brochtrup, and Mark Nelson. Photographer: James Leynse/59E59 via Bloomberg

Jonathan Tolins’s “Secrets of the Trade” is an accomplished comedy-drama about life and love in the theater. It may be a trifle predictable for the cognoscenti, but it is literate, polished and witty.

It is the story of Andy Lipman, a precocious boy from Long Island, between ages 16 and 26. In other words, between his sending a fan letter to the star director-producer Martin Kerner and asking for his help, and the time when, himself now a successful TV writer-director, he receives a similar epistolary solicitation.

A good deal happens in between during the play, running at 59E59 Theaters in Manhattan. A troubled off-and-on relationship with Martin that, though remaining platonic, is basically erotic. Harvard University and new relationships. Andy’s discovery that he is gay and his difficulties telling his father, Peter, an architect, and his mother, Joanne, an ex-dancer now high-school English teacher.

Further, he has found out that Martin is gay too, with a longtime lover, and that Martin’s tough, sarcastic yet not unsympathetic secretary, Bradley (most likely gay as well) got his job through a similar fan letter and was similarly first taken out to a snazzy lunch.

The secret of the trade is that theater keeps going as one established gay man lends a helping hand to a much younger, ambitious one, time and time again. So what else is new?

Quiet Irony

What is new is that Tolins has written a play that is clever and amusing in almost every line. Which also is the problem: It reads better than it plays. There is such a thing as being too smooth, too epigrammatic, too smartass without respite.

There are additional problems with this Black Dahlia Theatre (Los Angeles) and Primary Stages (New York) co- production, starting with the leading man, or, more precisely, leading boy. Noah Robbins is a good actor, but everything about him is geared to farce -- looks, voice, demeanor -- rather than, as the script implies, to a charmer.

As the father, Mark Nelson has much the same problem. He plays everything for cute comedy when a stodgier approach would be truer and, yes, funnier. The others are fine. John Glover is an appropriately complex, volatile and often self-dramatizing Martin Kerner; Amy Aquino is a perfectly convincing Joanne. As Bradley, Bill Brochtrup aptly exudes quiet irony with moments of breakthrough sympathy.

Matt Shakman directs savvily on Mark Worthington’s simple set, with Alejo Vietti’s incisive costumes and Mike Durst’s forthright lighting.

I find this clearly autobiographical play much more persuasive than Tolins’s three previous ones; even so, it should be accosted with expectations more modest than young Andy Lipman’s.

Through Sept. 4 at 59 E. 59th St. Information: +1-212-279-4200; http://www.ticketcentral.com. Rating: ** 1/2

What the Stars Mean:
****       Do Not Miss
***        Excellent
**         Average
*          Poor
(No stars) Worthless

(John Simon is the New York drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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