As in his earlier Twilight of the Golds, Jonathan Tolins’ Secrets of the Trade takes myriad twists and turns. Some will surprise an audience. Others are predictable from the moment the play begins.
Unfortunately, most of the plot shifts in this play about a high school theater geek eager to enter the glamorous world of Broadway don’t make for a better, more dramatic or more insightful piece of theater.
Both a coming-of-age and a coming-out play, Secrets of the Trade is getting its South Florida debut in an Island City Stage production at Fort Lauderdale’s Empire Stage. That Tolins’ 2008 blending of comedy and drama resonates with many in the attentive audience is obvious: Clearly, the decade-long journey of the play’s key character stirs memories both pleasant and painful. But the truths contained in Tolins’ script don’t erase the play’s flaws.
Tolins tells the story of Andrew “Andy” Lipman (Alexander Zenoz), a Long Island 16-year-old who’s crazy about theater. Dad Peter (Peter Librach) is an architect, mom Joanne (Niki Fridh) a former Broadway dancer-turned-teacher, and both are deeply supportive of their bright only child’s dreams.
Things begin to shift after Andy writes a fan letter to Broadway legend Martin Kerner (Bill Schwartz). Kerner — who is some combination of director, producer and playwright (Tolins isn’t crystal clear) and who seems to be working out of an office in his apartment (at least, that’s what Andy says) — ignores Andy ‘til the kid turns 18. Then he invites the ambitious, eager, naive kid to a wine-enhanced lunch at Manhattan’s celeb-packed Café des Artistes. Mama Joanne smells trouble.
Director Andy Rogow made a smart casting decision in giving the rather maddening role of Kerner to Schwartz. The actor infuses the character with an urbane charm, and he keeps Kerner’s motives just questionable enough that the older man’s periodic interest in Andy isn’t as simple as it first seems.
Does he want to mentor a young talent? Help a younger gay guy down the road to self-acceptance? Or is he marking time until his not-quite-protégé is old enough to seduce? One purposefully unsettling scene suggests the third option.
Zenoz, a young actor just beginning his professional career, believably ages from a kid just three years beyond his Bar Mitzvah to a Harvard student in the throes of first love to a writer giving a different medium a try. But he doesn’t yet have the charisma or skill to overcome the way Tolins paints Andy as a once-happy kid who angrily rejects his parents, in life and in art. Zenoz’s Andy comes off as spoiled, miserably irrational and tough to cheer on.
Rogow gets solid supporting work from Larry Buzzeo as Martin’s sometimes-snippy assistant Bradley, Librach as Andy’s dad and, especially, Fridh as the suspicious and jealous Joanne. This time, the Island City design team — Michael McClain (set), Preston Bircher (lighting), David Hart (sound) and Peter Lovello (costumes) — keeps things simple. If only Tolins, whose too-long play meanders and digresses, had done the same.