review: secrets of the trade

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Secrets of the Trade

by Jonathan Tolins
Directed by Matt Shakman
Starring Amy Aquino, Bill Brochtrup, John Glover, Mark Nelson, Noah Robbins
Primary Stages at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street
production web site:
http://primarystages.org/secretsofthetrade
July 27 – September 4, 2010

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
August 7, 2010 (preview), opens August 10, 2010

Earnest young talent feels his way into the arts via supportive parents, talent, a Harvard education, and a few cultivated connections.  This is deftly constructed  — from spare settings and self-conscious (and plot-included) use of design elements like scrims to audience direct address by almost every character.  You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll recognize your own youthful ambitions, and cheer each character individually.  Secrets of the Trade is lovely, smart theatre.

The story follows the career of Andrew Lipman (Noah Robbins), as he matures from 16 to 26, from a pampered yet smart and worldly only child of school teacher and once dancer Joanne (Amy Aquino) and architect Peter (Mark Nelson), dreaming of a career in theatre.  He writes a letter, encouraged by his parents, to his hero director Martin Kerner (John Glover).  The most “aw” and gasp inspiring sentence from this letter, read as one of the earliest direct address moments in the piece: “Thank you for directing my dreams.”  This letter inspires contact from the veteran director. and their relationship begins.

Joanne speaks for all engaged parents everywhere when she says at a point when she is aware while her son hasn’t yet acknowledged to himself that he’s gay: “Its exhausting being enlightened.”  Andrew in college, prior to coming out, says about his parents coming to visit him: “I just get freaked out when my worlds collide.”  And irascible and talented Martin Kerner himself, at a point when Andrew has pushed a bit to hard for Kerner to give him the answer and deliver to him his career: “I’m not telling you what to do.  I’m trying to teach you how to be.”  The dialogue enchants.

There are many allusions that are too “inside baseball” for my knowledge and sensibilities, but I was entertained by one recast reference that must have been adapted from an event I recall.  A classmate at Harvard, the perpetual wunderkind stage and opera director Peter Sellars, famously staged a production of Anthony and Cleopatra in the Adams House swimming pool in the late 1970s.  In this play Andrew describes a Harvard colleague, several years ahead of him, who staged Woyzeck in the Adams House swimming pool.

This is a coming of age story with wit and charm and balanced roles for all characters, including Bradley (Bill Brochtrup), Kerner’s assistant, who has some marvelous speeches about the role he plays in the theatre world he loves.  Quotable, playable, entrancing, backstage drama and more.  There are surprises that enchant. Allow those surprises to come and never assume you know where the plot may be heading.   The performance I attended, the audience made up its own plot points at a certain stage of the play (concerning whether or not Kerner had designs on Andrew), which brought to mind the following Act III dialogue from Phillip Barry’s The Philadelphia Story.  At this point Tracy and George, now ex-fiancees, debrief an event of the evening before that was misconstrued by George.

  • George: It didn’t take much imagination, I can tell you that.
  • Tracy: Not much, perhaps — but just of a certain kind.
  • George: It seems you didn’t think any too well of yourself.
  • Tracy: That’s the odd thing, George: somehow I’d have hoped you’d think better of me than I did.

We all think a great deal of Andrew by the end of this play.  And his parents.  And, truth be told, Martin Kerner and his assistant Bradley.  Let them speak to you without writing your own play.  These are characters behaving, out of love, true to themselves.

© Martha Wade Steketee (August 9, 2010)

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