With warmth and humor, though admittedly also with a few questionable side trips, Secrets of the Trade tells the story of Andy, a nice Jewish boy from the suburbs with dreams of a theatrical career that he expects will take off after he connects with a well established New York writer-director.
The backdrop for Secrets of the Trade is the era in which it is set--the decade of the 1980s—the time when the heyday of the book musical was giving way to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s extravaganzas, Cats (“Now and Forever!”) and Phantom of the Opera, and Times Square was embarking on its transformation from seedy to greedy.
That the role of Andy is performed by Noah Robbins, who starred in the recent revival of Neil Simon’s 1983 play, Brighton Beach Memoirs, is surely not a coincidence. Indeed, playwright Jonathan Tolins borrows liberally from the Simon playbook, and it is not much of a stretch to view Andy as a suburban version of the 15-year-old Eugene from the Simon play.
Secrets of the Trade begins when Andy, at 16, writes a letter to his idol Martin Kerner, played by veteran actor John Glover. It takes two years for Kerner to get around to responding, but when he finally does, he invites Andy to dinner and regales him with theatrical tales that feed into Andy’s idealized vision. It does seem that the two have hit it off, and an apprenticeship that will lead to a career in the trade appears likely. Certainly there are precedents; think of Stephen Sondheim and Oscar Hammerstein II, or Michael Feinstein and Ira Gershwin.
We follow Andy and Kerner over the next ten years, and watch as their relationship waxes and wanes and reshapes itself, until it becomes clear that it means different things to each of them. It also becomes clear that it is the business side of “show business” that now dominates the trade. Even someone as successful and well-regarded as Kerner is feeling the pressure to keep up with the times.
In the course of the play, Tolins veers scarily towards a lot of potential clichés—the overbearing stage mother, the newcomer overtaking the mentor, the casting couch, to name but three—yet he generally manages to swerve away from them just in time to give us characters who are more complex, less predictable, and thus more human, than they may seem on the surface.
Director Matt Shakman keeps things humming along at a steady pace, and the play is well served by its strong cast, anchored by Robbins and Glover. Bill Brochtrup as Martin’s assistant, and Mark Nelson and Amy Aquino as Andy’s parents contribute greatly to the play by giving life and meaning to their roles as supporting players. In the end, when Andy is older and wiser, that support comes to mean a lot to him.
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