The politics of mentorship — that delicate roundelay between guru and devotee — is the unusual, provocative subject of Jonathan Tolins’ engrossing “Secrets of the Trade,” a South Coast Rep commission making its bow in Black Dahlia Theater’s flawless production.
This feels like a real step forward for Tolins, whose gift for upper-middle-class verbal conflict herein intersects with his interests in family dynamics (“Twilight of the Golds”), celebrity (“If Memory Serves”) and contemporary gay life (“The Last Sunday in June”) in the service of his most universal investigation yet: What’s the proper role of the teacher, and what ought the student properly expect?
In 1980, a letter out of the blue reaches the toast of Broadway, Harold Prince/James Lapine amalgam Martin Kerner (John Glover). Stagestruck Andy Lipman (Edward Tournier) has at 16 already essayed Ben in Kerner’s famous “Disraeli” musical — having talked the drama teacher out of “Bye Bye Birdie” — and the genius’ work haunts his dreams. (Literally: In a dreamt scene from the boy’s favorite movie, Kerner becomes Willy Wonka handing over his chocolate secrets to the next generation.)
No response, but two years later Kerner suddenly invites the boy to a tony Manhattan lunch, where Andy eagerly munches on war stories and Dutch uncle insights. Eight years of variously sober and fraught interactions follow, some in-person, many on the phone to Harvard during the kid’s personal and artistic growing pains as he sends Kerner production notes for critique (a Marxist “Pajama Game” is one brainchild).
As Andy pours his heart out late at night in Cambridge, or observes Kerner at work on a musicalized “Network” (“Mad as Hell”), it’s always clear what the youngster wants: a sounding board; a role model; above all, an entree into a career. But in Kerner’s pushing and prodding for confidences, and demanding Andy confront “the truth with a capital T,” just what does Kerner want?
Mom Joanne (a sharp and affecting Amy Aquino) thinks she knows: Once a hopeful gypsy before turning to high school teaching, she heard rumors back in the day and won’t give up her boy without a fight.
It’s a measure of the play’s maturity that her anger’s not solely, or even mostly, about keeping an impressionable son out of a dirty old man’s clutches. Mourning the time when she and adoring Andy were “Comden and Green,” and rattled to learn her students are finding her passe, she resents the Broadway spellbinder despite the common sense reassurance of architect husband Peter (droll, wise Mark L. Taylor), who had his own misbegotten brush with genius years ago.
And on the sidelines is Kerner’s gatekeeper Bradley, assigned the right dollop of Thelma Ritter wryness from Bill Brochtrup. Ever watchful as Kerner hints at hiring Andy or opening career doors without anything actually panning out, Bradley too has a mentorship story to tell and could proffer the right advice if only Andy would stop to listen.
Matt Shakman’s staging makes superb use of the tiny but deep Black Dahlia crackerbox to include hints of theatrical magic, the stuff of which Andy’s dreams are made. He directs character connections with masterful skill, as conversations roll and flow and overlap — and flare up or cease — in as close an approximation of real life as theater’s able to offer.
Above all, there’s the team of Glover and Tournier, the former finding astonishing shadings in the already rich role of aging wunderkind, the latter aging subtly as the great man shapes him in unexpected ways. Glover has never been more compelling or sympathetic, and Tournier guides us like a seasoned pro as Andy’s eyes open to life and love, and he (and we) learn exactly what Golden Tickets our mentors can and cannot provide.