The old ‘coming out’ story gets twisted

old-coming-out-story-gets-twisted
Noah Robbins and John Glover Martin in "Secrets of the Trade." (Photo by James Leynse.)
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As the first act of Secrets of the Trade, a new play by Jonathan Tolins, unfolds, you’ll probably think you know exactly where it’s headed. It seems to be another sweet and sad coming-out story, this one involving a Long Island college student named Andy Lipman who is hoping for a career in the theater.

But Tolins throws a bit of a curveball as the second act begins. It turns out that his play is not so much about a young man coming to terms with being gay as it is about his figuring out what that means. How, Andy wonders, does this new piece of the puzzle fit in with the rest of his life?

The answer comes with the help of an older gay man named Martin Kerner (John Glover), a playwright and director idolized by Andy. Kerner is moved by a fan letter Andy has written, but doesn’t get around to answering for a couple of years. Finally summoned to Kerner’s office, Andy has stars in his eyes. Kerner has something else in his. If you think you know where this part of the plot is going, you’d most likely be wrong again.

Andy’s parents think they know what is going on, too. His mother is so certain that she marches down to Kerner’s office, demanding to know whether Kerner is having sex with her son. Kerner doesn’t deny an attraction to Andy—a “kick,” as he puts it—but explains that it’s just one component of their complicated relationship. He gently explains that only another gay man, one who’s been around the block a few times, can help Andy figure out who he is. Any gay man who remembers having an older mentor—sexual or not—when he was young will recognize the type of connection described by Kerner.

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This scene is exhilarating because Tolins has taken the oldest story in the gay book—the coming-out tale—and made it feel fresh by letting us see it from a different angle. When Andy tells Kerner that he is gay, Kerner admits he’s known since he received Andy’s letter years before. Andy wonders how Kerner could possibly have guessed. “Well,” Kerner jokes, “you had seen a lot of theater.”

Tolins clearly doesn’t know how to end the play, as it grinds to a halt after touching briefly on a half a dozen issues like AIDS and outing. But a handful of carefully crafted scenes about intergenerational gay friendships, touchingly directed by Matt Shakman, won’t be easily forgotten.

Also unforgettable are two performances: Noah Robbins as Andy and John Glover as Kerner. Robbins, just a year or so out of high school, never hits a false note as Andy grows from a geeky teen to a slightly jaded adult. Glover, as the theater impresario, effortlessly shows us all of Kerner’s contradictions: kind and callous, nurturing and dismissive, accessible and reticent to share too much about himself. It’s a testament to Glover that whenever Andy has a scene with his parents (Amy Aquino and Mark Nelson, toiling in underwritten roles), you wonder what Kerner might be doing at that moment. In fact, you half wish that the play had centered around the teacher, rather than the student.

Primary Stages’ production of Secrets of the Trade plays at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, until September 4. For tickets, call 212-279-4200 or visit ticketcentral.com.