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Jonathan Tolin's "Secrets of the Trade" staged in Lauderdale

Staff Writer

Equal parts coming-of-age and coming-out tale, Island City Stage’s “Secrets of the Trade” starts funny and cute, but increasingly becomes gripping and bittersweet. The gay-themed comedy, at Fort Lauderdale’s Empire Stage through Feb. 9, holds that shift in balance for much of its two-hour running time (with a 15-minute intermission).

If the story begins to meander near the end, that is all on the playwright Jonathan Tolin (“The Twilight of the Golds,” “Buyer and Cellar“). And who could really blame him for having too much fun with his multifaceted characters or for hanging out in the little orbit of his well-rounded script?

In “Secrets of the Trade” — getting a South Florida premiere with this staging — 16-year-old Andy Lipman (Alexander Zenoz) writes a letter to his hero, Martin Kerner (Bill Schwartz), an aging theatrical maestro with many Broadway hits in his past. Martin doesn’t respond for two years, when Andy is of legal age at 18. This causes Andy’s mom, Joanne (Niki Fridh), to feel a “Spidey sense” tingling. She’s a former Broadway dancer, and she’s heard things about Martin, things she hints at to Andy’s dad, Peter (Peter Librach), who pooh-poohs her concerns as their son heads to Harvard. After getting a first taste of the Manhattan A-list world from Martin’s assistant, Bradley (Larry Buzzeo), Andy has lunch with Martin and begins to slough off his suburban identity for something more urbane.

Director Andy Rogow slyly keeps the mist hanging around the characters’ motivations, which are not simple or straightforward. Does Martin simply want to mentor Andy? Or does he have something more prurient in mind? Is this a wacky, wonderful and whimsical laugh-riot or a brutal, badass, backstage melodrama?

The cast has to constantly shift the hues and tones of their performance as the play heads toward answers. Librach and Fridh even pull double-duty in quick-but-sharp bit parts, playing a waiter and an agent, respectively. There is some sharp acting going on here. Zenoz has a nice, slacker-like grip on Andy’s slightly neotenous nature, taking him from puppy-dog enthusiasm to something approaching old-dog savvy in a believable manner. The acting is a subtle art with him, full of tiny calibrations. On the other hand, Martin is, as is appropriate for a director-playwright-producer, larger than life. He stands there with feet planted in a wide-legged stance, eyes fixed upward as he recalls some long-gone triumph and gives Andy his pronouncements.

It is here where the playwright’s voice rings loudest and clearest: He has a love-hate thing going on for theater. No wonder the show feels as if it is two things, filled with dualism both literal and figurative.


"Secrets of the Trade"

When: Through Feb. 9; 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; 5 p.m. matinees Sundays

Where: Empire Stage, 1140 N. Flagler Drive, Fort Lauderdale

Cost: $30

Contact: 954-519-2533 or

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