Separation Anxiety: “Secrets of the Trade”

Separation Anxiety: “Secrets of the Trade”

A college student’s playwright mentor makes his parents uneasy in Jonathan Tolins’ hit play.

Ted Merwin’s column appears monthly. He writes about theater for the paper and is the author of the award-winning “Pastrami on Rye,” a history of the Jewish deli.

Our parents may be our first and most important teachers, but part of growing up is finding new mentors who can point us toward success in our careers. In Jonathan Tolins’ new play, “Secrets of the Trade,” set in the 1980s, a theater-obsessed suburban Jewish teenager, Andy Lipman (Noah Robbins) becomes the protege of a legendary but egotistical Broadway playwright, Martin Kerner (John Glover). After their son goes off to college, the relationship between the two deepens, in ways that make the boy’s parents, Joanne (Amy Aquino) and Peter (Mark Nelson) increasingly uneasy.

Are Andy’s parents just having trouble letting go or has is their son being taken advantage of? When the play ran in 2008 in Los Angeles, the L.A. Times named it one of the ten best plays of the year and Backstage West called it “meticulously crafted, exceedingly clever.”

After growing up in Roslyn, Tolins went to Harvard, and then broke into the entertainment business by writing for a game show in L.A. Although he has written a number of plays, including “The Last Sunday in June,” and “If Memory Serves,” Tolins is best known for “Twilight of the Golds,” a play about a Jewish couple who consider having an abortion after they learn through genetic testing that their unborn child will be gay. After a brief run on Broadway, “Twilight of the Golds” was turned into an acclaimed television movie starring Jennifer Beals, Brendan Fraser, Garry Marshall, and Faye Dunaway Directed by Matt Shakman, “Secrets of the Trade” is a love letter to the theater and the outsized personalities whose creative energy lights up the Great White Way. While Andy falls in love with the glamor and star-power that Martin embodies, Martin gets what Tolins calls the “romantic buzz from hanging around a younger person who thinks you’re the greatest” and that leads him to nurture Andy’s ambition by giving him the confidence to succeed.

Tolins, who lives in Connecticut with his husband, Robert Cary (author of last year’s backstage comedy, “Inventing Avi”) and their two children, called his new work a “loving portrayal of the kind of obsessive attention” that Jewish parents typically give their offspring. Even while parents may seek to encourage and support their kids, Tolins noted, they often fall into the trap of burdening them with unrealistically high expectations. In the end, Andy realizes that his parents have a lot to offer. “Coming of age is not an either/or choice between the people you’re coming from and the people you’re going to,” Tolins said. “Children need to pick and choose parts of both sides to hold onto in order to move forward.”

Robbins, who grew up in Potomac, Maryland, identifies strongly with his character. Robbins was starring last year as Max Bialystock in the Georgetown Day School production of Mel Brooks’ “The Producers,” when he was cast in the Broadway revival of Neil Simon’s “Broadway Beach Memoirs.” When the show closed after just a week, he was heartbroken. “The disappointment that I felt helps me understand what Andy is going through,” Robbins said. “I went from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows.”

The young actor sees a lot of irony in the title of the play. “Andy is so awestruck by Martin, and he thinks that Martin will be able to open doors for him. But Andy learns that there aren’t really any secrets of the trade. No one can hand him a career on a silver platter. He has to find his own way.”

“Secrets of the Trade” runs through September 4 at Primary Stages at 59E59 Theaters (59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison Avenues). Performances are Tuesday and Wednesday evenings at 7 p.m., Thursday through Saturday evenings at 8 p.m., and Wednesday and Saturday matinees at 2 p.m. There will also be a Sunday matinee performance this Sunday, August 15, at 3 p.m. For tickets, $60, call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 or visit For patrons 35 and under, $20 tickets are available using code PS35.

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