Jonathan Tolins’s new play, Secrets of the Trade (59E59 Theaters), is ingenious, amusing, and ultimately annoying. This should cause no surprise: Tolins, author of The Twilight of the Golds and The Last Sunday in June, seems to specialize in annoying plays. His habitual device is to set up one aspect of a topic as his ostensible subject, and then shift his ground as the play progresses, revealing it to be about something else. This mode of bait-and-switch dramaturgy often feels clever; annoyance doesn’t usually set in until, on leaving, you try to make sense of what you’ve just seen. Secrets of the Trade, produced by Primary Stages, improves on its predecessors in that, this time around, the ingenuity and amusement in Tolins’s writing, given full value by the excellent cast of Matt Shakman’s sleek production, far outweigh the irritation.
Tolins’s ostensible topic in Secrets of the Trade is mentoring: how creative principles, in the theater, get passed on from one generation to the next. But he gives this nebulous matter two largely unspoken subtopics, each differently melodramatic. Set in the 1980s and ’90s, the story describes how Andy Lipman (Noah Robbins), the theater-smitten teenage son of supportive Long Island Jewish suburbanites (Mark Nelson and Amy Aquino), becomes, for a while, the intermittent focus of mentoring by Broadway’s established writer-director genius of the era, one Martin Kerner (John Glover). Subtopic A pivots on the notion that Kerner intends to take sexual advantage of adolescent Andy; subtopic B, a more metaphysical melodrama, toys with hints that Kerner might instead be mining Andy as a source of fresh ideas to steal.
Each of these subterranean premises has its verifiable side, though both are also about as old as news gets in the theater, familiar from decades of tell-all backstage dramas. Tolins undoubtedly knows this, and so confines the latter subtopic to hints while dancing cautiously around the former. It’s in dodging blatant hands-off-my-child hysterics that he shows his ingenuity. When Andy, now a Harvard undergrad, invades Kerner’s Boston hotel bedroom (tip of the hat to Willy Loman), Tolins gets a suitable intermission cliffhanger from the situation, and then stands the obvious expectations neatly on their head. A later scene in which Andy’s mother bursts into Kerner’s office to bewail his influence over her son takes even less predictable turns.
Still, these secondary motifs ring hollow because Tolins gives them only a perfunctory, and distinctly out-of-date, context. The Broadway of the 1980s was no longer the cheery place where Long Island suburbanites could relish life as a parade of happy showtunes, with same-sex preference merely a quirk sometimes noticeable in the male dance ensemble. That Broadway had begun to die with the arrival of Hair (1967), and been kicked into its coffin by New York’s economic decline in the 1970s, the advent of the dark “concept” musical à la Hal Prince, and finally the burgeoning of the British pop-rock mega-musical. One of the 1980s’ rare old-style hits was La Cage aux Folles, probably not a show relished by the Lipmans, in whose house homosexuality goes strictly unmentioned. Which is also odd, since Andy’s parents are educated liberals, an architect and an ex–show dancer turned English teacher. Hard to imagine issues of sex, or artistic property rights, going undiscussed in such a household.
This was, too, the age when AIDS decimated the New York theater community (it gets one fleeting mention, when Kerner cautions undergrad Andy about being careful); when gay liberation began to attain worldwide visibility; when Broadway underwent a seismic cultural and financial shift; when suburban parent-child relations had moved far from traditional standards. The home life seen every week of the ’80s on Norman Lear sitcoms spoke more freely than the one Tolins depicts.
Unclear, too, is what sort of artistry Kerner represents, other than the kind that wins Tony awards. Is he a Hal Prince subverting and revising the old tradition, a Gower Champion apotheosizing it, or a Tom O’Horgan supplanting it? Plus, although he keeps his personal life private, he’s apparently lived with the same man for 30 years. It’s hard to fathom why stagestruck Andy hasn’t learned this during all his years among Harvard’s theatrical set—years, by the way, in which the Harvard community went theater-mad thanks to the advent of my own mentor, Robert Brustein, and his American Repertory Theater. It would be captious to complain that Tolins doesn’t mention this influence; my complaint is that he doesn’t depict Andy as deriving any influence, theatrical or otherwise, from four years at Harvard. The boy merely does a lot of student shows.
What inspiration Kerner might derive (or steal) from Andy also remains a mystery, since we never learn what sort of theater the youngster aspires to create. All we get is one cartoonish glimpse of an “experimental” piece he stages Off-Off-Broadway, which looks like a late-’50s Caffe Cino show. With both that tension and the sexual undercurrent dissipated, when Andy winds up in a profitable but hateful commercial job, the play’s subject seems to have dwindled to a kvetch about Kerner’s failure to find him theatrical employment, which gives a weirdly sardonic ring to Andy’s heartfelt closing words about how much his mentor has taught him. It’s hard to tell if Tolins is satirizing the two men or saluting them.
His verbal skills, fortunately, keep mitigating one’s cumulative frustration. Even at their most factitious, his characters find pungent, pointed things to say. The gifted actors Shakman has assembled, whom he moves about with speed and dexterity, don’t overlook the faintest turn of a syllable: Bill Brochtrup, as Kerner’s downtrodden assistant, builds a full tragicomic portrait from a few scraps of dialogue; Robbins brings range and authenticity to his extremely sketchy role; Aquino serves a hearty plateful of pained vulnerability, spiced with freshly ground asperity, which Nelson decorates, contrapuntally, with sly, flavorsome twists of rue. Best of all, there’s Glover, seizing every opportunity in a role that travels from aristocratic hauteur to falling-down drunkenness, the latter charged with such inventive body English that I now want to see this invaluable actor in a dance role.