Which of us does not see their own, not-so-tortured teenage to man-aged evolution in Andrew Lipman — that is, which of us gay, Jewish, would-be (or in-fact) artists? And which of us does not cringe at, and find ourselves drawn to, the good-hearted, but flailing efforts of Martin Kerner, the once king of Broadway and his desire to inspire (if not guide) the young Lipman. So, “Secrets of the Trade” is a rewarding and frustrating evening in the theatre. The play, on the surface, is a delightful coming-out and coming-of-age story with two archetypal characters made real and loveable by a playwright who clearly identifies with both. The subplot, in which the parents have to grapple not only with the usual challenges of the transition of a teenage child into an independent human being, is less complicated by the “gay thing” than it is by the boy/man’s adoption of a surrogate gay father in Kerner.
As a story of a young man learning to accept the various aspects of his own identity — smart, artistic, gay (and less so, Jewish), the play works its charms very effectively. The evolution of Lipman is fairly standard — rebellion against parents, based more in developmental psychology than in reality. As his mother notes after seeing his effort at revisionist personal history in the form of an immature autobiographical play, “you need to find something to be angry at.” Andy idolizes of the master of his dreams, Kerner, and has the rare opportunity to enter the fringes of those dreams in an on-going relationship with the master over ten years of brief encounters. [n.b. I still have the letter from Hal Prince’s assistant informing me that he would not be available to me in my effort to write a dissertation on “auteur” musical theatre directors]. And then there is that bursting sense of freedom that is provoked by coming-out. While the pattern of Andy’s development is pretty standard stuff, playwright Jonathan Tolin’s treatment is fresh and exciting, at least for anyone whose identity is tied to theatre, sex, and the pretense of intellectuality. I was particularly impressed by the way Tolin carefully built Andy’s intellectual maturation — in both language and ideas, the character grows into an articulate and perceptive, if deflated, independent individual. And the performance by this acclaimed new actor, Noah Robbins, makes the most of this very well written role. In fact, one has to wonder where the character ends and where the actor begins given the circumstances of this year in the actor’s life — two rave notices in the NYT for a kid who, as the Playbill bio notes, recently played Max Bialystock in the “off-off-off-off- Broadway production” of The Producers at a high school in Washington, DC.
But this is really a two character play and the second character presents a less satisfying experience. John Glover is truly fantastic as the quasi-closeted Broadway legend in his declining years (not knowing anything about Mr. Glover’s orientation — he has certainly played enough gay characters in his time — there is also a wonderful quality in his performance of not being able to distinguish the actor from the role). He is given very little upon which to establish his credentials as a theatrical genius — Mr. Tolin enjoys the not-so-inside jokes about adaptations of films into megamusicals as Kerner’s specialty. But Glover makes us believe in his theatrical preeminence almost as much as the starry-eyed Andy does.
Unfortunately, Tolin has not given Kerner the depth of the portrait of the young Lipman or even the predictable but truthful trajectory of the younger artist’s parents. Kerner is a cheerleader for Lipman. While he is clearly going through his own psychological devolvement, Tolin only gives us the most sketchy details of Kerner’s struggles — bits and pieces about his alcoholic partner, his on-going, dare I say “habitual,” mentoring of young male talent, and the inevitably unsuccessful effort to remain king. There is a rather unsatisfying point in a confrontation between Kerner and the boy’s mother (she suspects there is more than mentoring going on) when the aging Marty confesses that Andy is like the child he never had. While this moment is telling, it comes off as trite since it is virtually the only time that Tolin allows the character to turn inward.
So, in the second act, when Andy lashes out at Kerner’s adoption of a new (and former rival) mentee, Andy’s feeling of being betrayed by a man who never promised him anything but a sense of self-worth is perfectly acceptable. But Kerner’s response to that accusation of disloyalty, the violent slap to actor Robbin’s innocent face, is clearly the manifestation of all of the underdeveloped aspects of Glover’s character. Kerner’s complete breakdown over the scathing notices for his flop adaptation of classic film Network is entirely believable because Tolin has established that Kerner was the king of Broadway and kings have crises when dethroned. But this is not a play about Broadway musicals; it is a play about two artists at opposite ends of their careers and Tolin’s failure to fully investigate Kerner’s psychological development made this play less satisfying than it might otherwise have been.
But what is in the play is quite pleasing, made more so by a company that is perfectly matched and capable of drawing audiences into familiar territory. And Tolin does treat all of the other characters as three dimensional beings, evolving and emoting. Equally important, he has a wonderful theatrical sense — occasionally breaking the fourth wall, frequently hitting us with a fresh way of looking at what we already know. When the now 30 year old, Hollywood successful Andrew is asked by his parents to help the son of one of their friends break into the business, he declares, “Yes, mother, there is a definite shortage of ambitious young Jews in Los Angeles.” But Andy is a good Jewish boy and so he agrees to mentor the newbie — and the cycle continues.