Secrets Of The Trade
Written by Jonathan Tolins
Directed by Matt Shakman
If success in theater depends on who you know, it also demands a firm sense of self while rolling between roles. Primary Stages' production of Jonathan Tolins's new backstage comedy, Secrets of the Trade (through September 4), recasts the familiar narrative of theatrical apprenticeship as friendship and self-discovery rather than increasingly unfriendly competition (see Mamet's A Life in the Theatre). In the wonderfully paced coming-(out)-of-age story spanning the rise of Reagan to the early reign of Bush Sr., supposed secrets of the New York theater world are more like unconfirmed but widely circulated truths, and entirely besides the point in any case. As Andy Lipman (Noah Robbins) and Martin Kerner (John Glover) learn from each other, certain things are too true to keep secret. In that spirit, Secrets is frankly theater about theater at its best.
The superb cast, sensitively directed by Matt Shakman on a versatile set by Mark Worthington, disassembles theatre from the inside out. Andy, a Jewish teen from Long Island with talent to match his dreams of stage stardom, and cautious encouragement from his parents (Amy Aquino and Mark Nelson, both excellent), writes his idol. Martin, a successful actor-writer-director, responds two years later. During the next decade, their sporadic encounters flesh out a mutually helpful and hurtful friendship. Glover's Martin, a formerly avant-garde Broadway brand—or, as he puts it: "My work is in the high-middlebrow"—exudes effortless charm in all but his ugliest moments. And then he deploys a regal rage at once slightly affected and completely visceral. But as Andy tells Martin during a particularly pitted argument: "You never change!" Robbins does the lion's share of changing, growing from over-eager teen into pessimistic twenty-something. As an immensely talented actor about to become a twenty-something, Robbins seems primed for the kind of success that eludes Andy.
The early going brims with naïve enthusiasm and tossed-off allusions for theater nerds. But eventually Tolins's dueling comic and dramatic sensibilities find the right balance, as Secrets concerns itself less and less overtly with the trade. Post-intermission, identity politics and the limits of compromise in life and art take center stage, with Andy mounting an experimental show cruelly caricaturing his upbringing, and Martin directing "Mad as Hell," a disastrous musical adaptation of Network. Robbins and Glover conjure a mix of ambition, talent, righteousness and narcissism, or what Bill Brotchtrup—sneakily stealing scenes as Martin's assistant Bradley—calls "the curse." That double-edged desire for veneration is Tolins's truest secret of the trade.
(photo credit: James Leynse)