Though shows focusing on homosexuals have been unusually frequent this past year, Jonathan Tolins’ ambitious, bittersweet new play about gay men has a depth and subtlety that few dramas can muster in any season. Secrets of the Trade examines the coming-of-age of a young gay artist: it touches on the rocky relationships of parents and children; the coming-out process; finding a mentor; and pursuing one’s dreams (and sometimes failing), yet its various concerns cohere into a satisfying whole. It’s a smart, richly woven tapestry whose meanings and patterns may not emerge fully by the end. As a really good play should, it sends one away with questions and a desire to talk about it. The central relationship in Secrets of the Trade is between a mentor and his protégé: at 16, young Andy (Noah Robbins), a bright theater aficionado and would-be artist, writes a fan letter to Martin Kerner, one of the leading directors and writers in the medium. As the play moves through the next decade, they connect, and Kerner becomes a strangely passionate yet volatile adviser to Andy, who expects a chance to work on a Kerner show, even in the smallest capacity, but never gets it.
As the play marches through the 1980s—John Gromada provides a sound bite that places it right at the start of the Reagan era, and he contributes the tuneful music as well—Andy goes to Harvard, becomes involved with the Hasty Pudding theatricals, and waits and hopes for Kerner’s calls and letters. They keep in touch, occasionally speaking by phone or meeting for lunch. Amid the minimal but effective sets by Mark Worthington, Robbins shows a slowly maturing Andy, alternately confident and uncertain, who is not without doubts, but who hangs his hopes on his idol. The slightly built Robbins often sounds like a teenage Woody Allen, but he's superb both as a precocious teenager and a confident, resentful adult who finally challenges his icon.
John Glover tears into the role of Kerner, a monstre sacré who is by turns encouraging, temperamental, engaging, rebuking, and sympathetic. It’s a grand part that allows an actor a multiplicity of emotions, and Glover seizes it wholeheartedly.
Director Matt Shakman skillfully keeps questions hanging as long as possible. Is Andy gay? Does Kerner have a sexual interest in him? Does Kerner himself know it? And what is Kerner’s relationship to his assistant, the ever-watchful Bradley, played with cool, sphinx-like observation by Bill Brochtrup? Bradley is a constant in Kerner’s life, and his big revelation scene packs a punch, but the play is rife with surprises.
Shakman also stages the comic scenes beautifully. In one imaginative dream sequence, Andy is Charlie and Glover plays Willie Wonka—in Andy’s words “this magnificent, exasperating older man who was giving him the keys to his kingdom…”
Despite his gay mentor, Andy’s parents are a crucial part of his life. His mother Joanne, whom Amy Aquino invests with a heavy dose of skepticism and regret, was a would-be dancer who once auditioned for Kerner but wasn’t hired. She knows the risk Andy runs in setting his hopes too high.
Mark Nelson brings heart, encouragement, and paternal pride to Peter Lipman, who wants his son to succeed, as any parent would. But Peter, an architect who once met his own idol, still smarts from the disastrous and hurtful results of that encounter. Indeed, if architecture is the most public of arts, then all the characters are artists with different experiences of success and failure—and ironically Peter is, with Kerner, the one who has succeeded at his chosen profession, but with a decidedly more humane disposition. Yet it’s impossible for him to fill the role that Kerner does.
Tolins suggests that a parent can’t really mentor a gay child the way an outsider can, and that only a gay mentor can assist a gay protégé like Andy with accepting his sexuality. “Andy came to me,” Kerner tells Joanne, “because I can give him what you can’t…. Permission to become himself, as fully as possible.”
But Secrets of the Trade also suggests that no artist can chart another’s path to success or tell him what he should do. It’s a lesson that Andy ultimately recognizes in the rueful moment that closes this deeply honest play. “Nobody helps anybody,” he tells his mother. “Nobody can. Not the way you think.”