That the play and this production, which has been gracefully directed by Matt Shakman, capture both the illusoriness and illusion of this complex theatrical concept is a good thing, because it’s exactly what the central character, Andrew Lipman (Noah Robbins), loves most about the art. When he was seven, he was transported by his first Broadway show, a revival of Flash in the Pan, and felt that its writer and director, Martin Kerner, comprehended in a way few others did how to wield a modest theatrical arsenal with prestige and punch. So, when Andrew turns 16 in 1980 and is considering a writing-directing career of his own, he writes a letter to Martin (John Glover) to see if his far-away inspiration is ready for his close-up.
After two years, Martin responds, and the two meet for lunch. Martin regales the young man with fabulous stories about the shows he’s done and the people he's worked with, and implants in him an appreciation of the theatre’s endless possibility, and the belief that he too may someday be able to enjoy a career in it. This leads the two on an eight-year journey of friendship and conflict, in which they come to realize that their expectations of the other were, perhaps, not realistic, and may in fact have done their relationship more harm than good.
How they work through their travails — Martin disapproves of Andrew’s Hasty Pudding appearance, for example, but is willing to pursue his own triviality (a musicalization of the film Network called Mad As Hell) — or fail in the attempt is more than meat enough for any play of this nature. Anyone who’s participated in the theatre or fallen in with either official or unofficial mentors will hear the ring of truth in the exultations and the fights that characterize the decade of life between Martin and Andrew that Tolins chronicles.
An outstanding cast only further burnishes these already bright moments. Robbins, who played Eugene in the short-lived Broadway revival of Brighton Beach Memoirs last season, is a marvel as Andrew. He evokes with effortless ease not just the Long Island Jewishness Andrew hopes won’t define him, but also both the newborn and newly broken innocence that are so crucial for depicting Andrew's development. He makes a full-bodied transformation from an awkward 16-year-old boy to a confident 26-year-old man, at times recalling a young Lonny Price but creating a fresh vision of someone learning how hard it is to be himself.
As the flamboyant Martin, Glover embodies all the easygoing charisma and gregarious energy of someone who understands that theatre must be passed on for it to survive, and is determined to do his part. He expertly negotiates the changes in Martin’s personality from trendsetter to settler, showing how age and outlook can affect one’s direction in life while always maintaining a likable, brazen comic edge. Mark Nelson and Amy Aquino shine as Andrew’s parents and a variety of other ensemble roles, and Bill Brochtrup brings a refreshing dryness to Martin's devoted assistant-with-a-secret.
They, just as much as Robbins and Glover, contribute to the creation of a work of epic emotional size within a minuscule physical conception. It’s one that Shakman nimbly helms and set designer Mark Worthington has fashioned to resemble a makeshift play-within-a-play, complete with travelers, visible backdrops, and (of course) scrims that reinforce Shakespeare’s (and Martin's) notion that all the world is indeed a stage.
So much is so right with the show that it's a shame to have to mention its single wrong step — but as it grows to consume the play, it's unavoidable. Tolins eventually pushes his delightful theatre story into the background to let a more melodramatic and predictable narrative about sexuality and its impact on the New York theatre scene take over. (Specific details won’t be revealed here, but I’m assuming they don’t need to be.) All the characters eventually become embroiled in questions about sex and appropriateness that are thematically — but not directly — related to what had previously seemed key: how and why knowledge is transferred from one generation to the next.
As this new story edges out the old, the play rapidly changes from trenchant and touching to tiresome: Is another sexual liberation play set in the AIDS era somehow inherently more valuable than the timeless character study Tolins spends the first act so intricately weaving? Or is it merely a way to work some political “relevance” into a show that could strike some as shallow? Tolins’s previous plays Twilight of the Golds and The Last Sunday in June dealt heavily with gay political issues, but as a part of their fabric — neither, at any point, pretended to be anything else. Why must this one?
Andrew and Martin’s story does not need help from a naked (and reckless) application of topicality that stifles its heartwarming uniqueness. Martin forever instructs Andrew to search out Truth with a capital T, to “face it all,” and perhaps Tolins — who has admitted in interviews that Martin is based on someone he knew — felt that meant fitting in his every idea, regardless of its impact. But surely Martin would also instruct that what really matters is the show. Tolins’s work here ultimately disappoints because he ignores that crucial rule, making his show’s most memorable moments seem like ones he’d prefer to forget. If Secrets of the Trade is spoken of in years to come, it may well not be in hushed, reverent tones it ought to deserve, but in the tut-tuts reserved for plays that are determined to go so many places that they ended up going nowhere at all.
Secrets of the Trade