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Theatre Review (LA): Secrets of the Trade by Jonathan Tolins at the Black Dahlia Theatre

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Director Matt Shakman has delivered another stellar production at his 30-seat theatre. In Secrets Of The Trade, playwright Jonathan Tolins (Twilight Of The Golds) examines the special relationship between mentor and follower in the world of the theatre when the teacher is gay and the student in the closet. The subject of this play is not what you might expect, though, because nothing sexual happens between the mentor and his young worshiper. Rather, Tolins explores the ripening of the relationship and the effects it has on the boy, the mentor, and the boy’s family. Along the way the playwright gives us plenty to think about and a lot to laugh at.

Sixteen-year-old student Andy Lipman, well portrayed by Edward Tournier, writes a letter to an aging genius of the theatre, director Martin Kerner, played by John Glover in one of the best performances I have ever seen from him. The play follows their relationship through the years until Andy is 26 and a television executive.

When Kerner meets the boy he promises to make him his protégé but insists that Andy must find his own unique voice. Many struggles ensue as Kerner dodges delivering on his promise to ”do something” while the boy contends with his evolving gay sexuality on top of trying to make it in show business. Tolins explores what this particular relationship involves and what each party can realistically expect from such a relationship. As it turns out, the lessons are in the struggle itself.

Andy learns his lesson and settles for who he becomes: a gay, successful, but less than brilliant television writer. At the end of the play he decides to take on his own apprentice to pass on what he knows. Ironically, neither Andy nor Kerner have anything much to do with each other after their struggles reach a climax when Andy pushes his mentor to come out of the closet for a magazine article he is writing. The boundaries between what is and is not appropriate to share are fully explored.

Helping shed light on all this are Andy’s parents: a mellow architect father, well played by Mark Taylor, blind to his son's talent and sexuality but always forgiving and supportive, and a grasping yet concerned mother, played with great nuance by Amy Aquino. The reactions and struggles Andy has with his parents are not pat. They involve his mother’s jealousy, her fierce protective instincts, her resignation to letting her son have his own life in the theatre (she is a dancer turned high school teacher who feels passé), and his love choices. Bill Brochtrup as Kerner’s jaded assistant and ex-protégé provides his own take on the situation and ends up helping all concerned. The set by Craig Siebels perfectly matches the spirit of the play, using a scrim, a fold-up set, beautiful paneled walls, and simple modern furniture.

Secrets Of The Trade plays at the Black Dahlia Theatre until April 20.

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