Monday, August 16, 2010

All About Andy

Secrets of the Trade
Written by Jonathan Tolins
Directed by Matt Shakman
Starring Amy Aquino, Bill Brochtrup, John Glover, Mark Nelson, Noah Robbins
Performances through September 4, 2010

Primary Stages
59 E 59 Theater, 59 East 59th Street

As Martin Kerner, genius Broadway producer-director in Jonathan Tolins’ Secrets of the Trade, John Glover does the kind of scenery-chewing one rarely sees any more: instead of gobbling up everything in sight, this excellent actor so carefully modulates his over-the-top performance that he remains generous to his fellow actors. There’s not one moment while Glover is onstage that he doesn’t dominate the proceedings—but there also isn’t a moment when you don’t notice any of the other actors onstage with him. That is what good, unselfish acting is all about.

Without Glover, Tolins’ likable, honest but overfamiliar comic coming-of-age story would probably fade after it’s finished faster than it does. Secrets of the Trade introduces us to a precocious 16-year-old theater lover, Andy Lippman from Port Washington, Long Island, whose literate fan letter to his Broadway idol Kerner is finally answered two years later. After going to lunch with Kerner at CafĂ© des Artistes, Andy is taken under the great man‘s wing, where he learns, through trial and error (mostly error) what it takes for a career in show business.

Tolins, as he showed in Twilight of the Golds on Broadway nearly 20 years ago, is better with quips than characterizations, so the constant zingers among this smart set of people—which includes Andy’s parents and Kerner’s assistant Bradley—proliferate for an overlong 2-1/2 hours. The one-liners do hide Tolins’ predictable set of situations, like Andy’s coming out, his mother’s frustration over her failed dancing career or Kerner’s own skeletons in the closet.

In his smartly straightforward staging, director Matt Shakman allows his actors to do the heavy lifting, and they respond with a terrific show of support for Glover. Mark Nelson and especially Amy Aquino do wonders with Andy’s underwritten mom and dad, while Bill Brochtrup is so unerringly perfect as Kerner’s all-knowing assistant Bradley that you might forget he’s giving a masterly class in underacting. As Andy, Noah Robbins, who scored as Neil Simon’s teen alter ego in Brighton Beach Memoirs, gives more of the same here, which works for the jokes but not for the believability of a character who ages from teenager to mature adult by play’s end. But Glover’s Kerner is such an indelibly theatrical creation that Secrets of the Trade seems far more substantial than it really is.

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