August 11, 2010

"Secrets of the Trade" Deserves to Be Known

For the past six years, Primary Stages has been in residence at the 59E59 Theaters, which is one of my favorite places to see an off-Broadway show.  For starters, the address is easy to remember: 59 East 59 (as in Street). I also like the way someone from the Primary Stages staff personally welcomes the audience at the beginning of each show (some other companies do this too but unlike Primary Stages, they usually sneak in a pitch asking you to make a donation, buy more tickets or purchase a CD in the lobby).  The Primary Stages folks also have a good number of ushers on hand, who actually take you to your seat, instead of just waving in its direction as has become the custom in so many theaters off and on Broadway. 

But the main reason I like going to Primary Stages is because the company puts on some of the best shows in the city.  Secrets of the Trade, the wry new comedy by Jonathan Tolins that is playing through Sept. 4, is one of its very best. The play follows a decade in the life of an ambitious Long Island kid who dreams of making it big in the theater and finds a seemingly-supportive mentor in a legendary Broadway writer and director.

Tolins pulls off the neat trick of combining three well-known theatrical genres (the coming-out play, the Jewish family comedy and the backstage drama) and finding something fresh in each. Things don’t turn out in predictable ways in Secrets of the Trade.  Characters are more complex than they appear at first. Along the way, gimlet-eyed observations about art are made.

The play is set largely during the Reagan years when the playwright, who is openly gay, was growing up and I couldn’t help wondering how much of a roman à clef it is and who the real-life model for the famous mentor might be. Tolins has anticipated the curiosity and you can click here to find his explanation embedded in the Primary Stages website.

The play’s verisimilitude is aided by the supple direction of Matt Shakman and some of the most honest acting I’ve seen on stage in a long while.  All five cast members—Amy Aquino, Bill Brochtrup, John Glover, Mark Nelson and Noah Robbins—are stellar, although Glover, pitch-perfect as the celebrated (six Tonys!) writer-director, and Robbins, who believably ages from 16 to 26, shine brightest.  Robbins' character may be similar to the one he played in last fall’s too short-lived revival of Brighton Beach Memoirs but I dare you to find anyone who plays a smart—and smart-mouthed—Jewish kid better (click here to see a video in which the young actor talks about his experiences with both shows.) 

Mark Worthington’s witty sets show how a limited budget doesn’t have to limit the imagination (my husband K and I got a particular kick out of his re-creation of the elegant eatery Café des Artistes, whose abrupt closing a year ago we are still mourning and recently-announced winter return under new ownership we’re nervously anticipating.) The lighting by Mike Durst and the sound design by John Gromada deserve their own curtain calls. 

“Isn’t it nice,”  K, a notoriously picky theatergoer, asked as we left the theater, “to see a really good play?”  Indeed, it sure is.

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