‘Secrets of the Trade’
and Other Compromising Positions
By Isa Goldberg
Watching “Secrets of the Trade” the week Prop 8 was overturned feels like a throw back, and not a very fortunate one at that. Revelers, take that as an alert.
Jonathan Tolins’ new play is set in the ‘80’s; its youthful protagonist (if there is one here) sports a “Silence Equals Death,” ACT UP tee shirt. And the gay man, the famous playwright/director, Martin Kerner (John Glover) who helps Andy (Noah Robbins) come to terms with his sexuality, later refuses to accept the young man’s request for an interview in a national gay magazine. Yes, this is the same Kerner who took Andy under his wing, and whose only declared purpose is to teach him “how to be.” That his remarks ring through like worn out aphorisms – “Anything is possible for you. Aim for the truth.” And, “Really face it. Face it all.” – immediately provokes some unease about his authenticity, as it pokes fun at Hollywood clichés.
That Andy fails to identify that from the start is no surprise. Nor is it a surprise when he ends up emulating his mentor’s moral predisposition. Andy may be a revolutionary while his Jewish parents in Long Island are putting him through Harvard, but when it comes to achieving success, he’s quick to accept the establishment. Without giving away every detail of the plot, it should be clear that “Secrets of the Trade” satirizes, among other things, the unwillingness of the entertainment industry as a whole to help the next generation of artists.
As a playwright, Tolins knows the sordid side of theater. “The Twilight of the Golds,” his only play to date to have been produced on Broadway, closed to poor reviews after only forty-four performances. That play, about a woman who discovers through genetic testing that her unborn son is destined to be gay, led to an acerbic and entertaining television movie of the same title.
Similarly, the outcome of this new play causes the audience to come face-to-face with our young hero as he takes an about turn from youthful aspirations to adult perceptions. Regardless of the sour ending, Tolins’ approach is comedic and amicable. At times using an improvisational style, the playwright achieves a fluid and inventive texture for his story. It’s a much needed contrast to the scenes of tea and sympathy between the youthful artist and his mentor. But, therein lies the underlying problem, and that is the fact that the characters, like their lines, are clichéd. Andy in particular is a typical Jewish boy with more than a streak of self-interest that’s flagrantly fueled by his coddling parents. Mark Nelson as his father and Amy Aquino as his mother are less characters in and of themselves than Andy’s raison d’etre. One can easily see how that would lead to a lot of discomfort for each of them. Aquino’s Joanne has only embarrassing memories of her life outside of being Andy’s mother, and Nelson’s Peter is also living vicariously through his son.
To complicate matters, Noah Robbins’ portrayal of Andy calls on a finite number of gestures, all of which are characteristically Jewish. The diminutive actor who played Neil Simon’s 15-year-old alter ego in “Brighton Beach Memoirs” on Broadway last season, was then compared to Woody Allen, as well he could be again here. That the portrayal seems canned counteracts the character’s supposed innocence and vulnerability. Finally, John Glover as the passé theater artist in search of youthful inspiration, does all he can with a character he, too, seems to find difficult to believe in.
As satire about the entrenchment of theater artists, I find Edward Albee’s 1960 playlet “Fam and Yam” far more adept and whimsical. Here the Famous American Playwright and the Young American Playwright discuss the future of the theater:
FAM: (Shooting his cuffs, aggressively cheerful) The new generation’s knocking at the door. Gelber, Richardson, Kopit…(Shrugs) Albee…you…(mock woe) you youngsters are going to push us out of the way…
YAM: (An unintentionally teeth-bearing smile) Well, maybe there’ll be room for all of us.
Albee stages a conflict between the two antagonists in which the set plays a major role. At the end “One of the Modiglianis frowns…the Braque peels…the Kline tilts…and the Motherwell crashes to the floor.”
“Secrets of the Trade” is performed at 59E59 Theatres (59 East 59th Street) through September 4th. Show times vary. For a complete list of performances and ticket availability, go to ticketcentral.com, call 212-279-4200 or stop by the box office.