Life is rough: In Jonathan Tolins’ “Secrets of the Trade,” closeted New York teenager Andy Lipman has only a celebrity mentor, a pair of wonderfully supportive parents, and an Ivy League education to see him through his coming-out experience. How will Andy survive? Pretty easily, it turns out, although it’s a little harder to understand how this production survives its extraordinarily low stakes and thematic shallowness. Somehow, though, between uniformly excellent perfs and just enough charm to squeak by, survive it does.
At least one key to the show’s success is pretty obvious: Noah Robbins, late of David Cromer’s blink-and-you-missed-it revival of “Brighton Beach Memoirs” on Broadway, brings such a winning authenticity to the part of Andy that it’s impossible to dislike him or resent his tremendous privilege, even when he’s angsting about it. John Glover, too, plays fashionable, fictional playwright Martin Kerner with a leonine grace that renders bearable even his most pretentious musings on a life in the theatah.
What’s missing from “Secrets of the Trade” is a sense of something deeper than one guy’s quest to overcome his fears about himself. Explored in greater depth, maybe that would be enough to keep “Secrets” going. Tolins keeps hinting that he’d like to say something larger about the theater itself, but it never gets said.
Kerner, for instance, has a lot of grandiose observations about how you should always be true to yourself in your theatrical work and so on ad nauseum, but he doesn’t manage to convey how these observations about a theatrical life worth living get lived by someone like Andy. That, in fact, is the point of several scenes in which Andy longingly begs his older friend for advice and gets name-dropping anecdotes instead.
This isn’t to say that Tolins fails at working some smart theatricality into the play. In act two, for example, we get to see Andy’s avant-garde play about his well-meaning parents, which is downright hilarious(Alejo Vietti’s costumes are particularly good here). Mark Nelson and Amy Aquino do double duty as both Peter and Joanne Lipman and the play-within-a-play’s hamfisted parody parents, and they get some of the biggest laughs of the evening, first as caricatures of themselves, then as people offended by the caricatures.
The best advice comes from Bradley, Kerner’s prim assistant (nicely played by Bill Brochtrup). In the homey lobby of Kerner’s office (set designer Mark Worthington wisely keeps the eerie office door on stage through most of the play), he demands respect from Andy, saying that a life as an artist isn’t necessarily a fuller life than his own. It would be a great place for the play to end up, but alas, Andy keeps jonesing for his art fix and Bradley’s advice turns out to be merely a brief detour.
Ultimately, a lot of the credit for making the slight play work is due to helmer Matt Shakman. There’s not a loose moment in the production, which covers a multitude of sins. It’s just a shame that a play with snappy dialogue and competently drawn characters tells such a generic story.