Theater is a cultivated passion -- and for many aspiring playwright and directors, finding a mentor is a step closer to the promised land. That's the case for young Andrew Lipman, a Long Island teenager who writes a letter to his idol, Martin Kerner, a six-time Tony winner. When the great man responds, it kicks off a friendship that says as much about the business of show as artistic narcissism. That's the premise of Secrets of the Trade, an entertaining comedy by Jonathan Tolins, now at 59E59 Theaters.
The pluses are lots of zingy one-liners and an insider's wink and a nod to Broadway glamour. Tolins, who wrote Twilight of the Golds, sets Secrets in what Kerner terms "high, middle-brow" fare. If Neil Simon were gay and from a comfortable suburban Jewish family, he could have written Secrets of the Trade.
This is comedy lite, but is ably carried by Andrew (a wonderful Noah Robbins), who ages before our eyes. He begins as a sweet, earnest, indulged kid, the only child of intelligent, cultured, Jewish parents, and goes through his rites of passage encouraged by Kerner (John Glover), who serves a dual role. First, to impart theatrical wisdom, and second, to support Andy's coming out. In fairness, Kerner also enjoys the hero worship. An older gay man, he realizes Andy's sexuality even before he does.
Kerner's career interest and advice is occasionally scattered by useful -- and Glover makes him both attractive and unreachable. He longs to impart the "secrets of the trade" to gifted youth; at the same time, he's aware the young embrace him to further their career. Andy's admiration, like all acolytes, has a price.
The production, which features a strong ensemble, neatly pits the world of liberal parents against a sophisticated Broadway legend. As the knowing mother, a spot-on Amy Aquino lets her young son cut up her plaid skirts for a one-man show of Brigadoon. His father (Mark Nelson) hyperbolicly pronounces his Andy's high-school production of Kerner's play genius. Tolins wisely doesn't use them as objects of mockery. They back Andy's efforts and endure his anger; he never forgets, to his credit, that, though flawed, they have his best interests at heart.
Directed by Matt Shakman, who uses the space and his cast well, the play is a crowd pleaser. It's too long in act two, and needs more story arc and less exposition, but the performances, like the playwright's love of theater, carry the day.