Secrets of the Trade
John Glover and Noah Robbins lead a terrific ensemble cast in Jonathan Tolins' bittersweet valentine to the world of theater.
The play centers on the young Andy Lipman (Noah Robbins) and his relationship to his mentor, an acclaimed Broadway director named Martin "Marty" Kerner (John Glover). Secrets spans the decade from 1980 to 1990, chronicling high schooler Andy's letter to his hero asking for a summer job, their initial meeting two years later, and through Andy's time at Harvard, his attempts to break into the theater biz, and beyond.
A significant part of the mens' dynamic is the fact that both are gay. Andy's mother Joanne (Amy Aquino) worries that this mentorship crosses the line, and Tolins plays up these fears, particularly in the scene that closes the first act, and then begins the second.
Glover is absolutely magnificent as Marty, displaying a volatile temper and a tendency for brutal criticism, along with a tender affection and surprising vulnerability. Much of this is conveyed in non-verbal ways, such as in a drunken phone conversation that he has with Andy, and the pained expression that crosses his face after Marty says something that he seems to almost instantly regret.
Robbins -- who made a sensational debut last season in the short-lived Broadway revival of Brighton Beach Memoirs -- shows off his talents to good effect here, as well. While the 19-year-old actor never loses his youthful appearance, he credibly ages from 16 to 26 as the play goes on. Moreover, he taps into Andy's fears, insecurities, passions, and ambitions in ways that are at times endearing, and at other times make you want to slap him -- and it's not all that surprising that someone eventually does!
Aquino presents a complicated portrait of Joanne, who is simultaneously protective and jealous of Andy. Mark Nelson, as Andy's father Peter, constantly seems on the verge of swallowing the words he wants to say in order to say the "right" things to support his son, whom he worries that he doesn't really understand. Rounding out the cast is Bill Brochtrup, who plays Marty's assistant Bradley; the actor initially seems to be playing a gay stereotype, but then layers in some depth. He, too, seems to choose his words carefully before speaking them -- other than an off-color joke in the first act that gets Joanne fuming.
Tolins' dialogue is often quite funny, and he also fleshes out his characters so that we come to care about them all -- despite, or maybe even because of their flaws. The play ends on a somewhat sentimental note, but one that seems well earned by what's come before it.