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Playwright Jonathan Tolins Reveals Secrets of the Trade

Buffalo United Artists has special enthusiasm for the work of playwright Jonathan Tolins. They’ve staged successful productions of his plays The Last Sunday in June, about a group of friends in a New York apartment on the date of the gay pride parade, and The Twilight of the Golds, about a couple that takes part in DNA test that indicates their baby will be gay.

Now BUA is taking up Tolins’s most recent play, Secrets of the Trade, in which a 16-year-old boy writes a letter to an iconic (and gay) Broadway director who becomes his enormously complicated mentor. The production stars Jimmy Janowski as the director, Jason Young as his young mentee, Lisa Ludwig and David Granville as the boy’s perplexed parents, and Matthew Crehan Higgins as the writer’s assistant and former protégée.

This will be the first production of Secrets of the Trade subsequent to New York. Niagara University presented The Twilight of the Golds a few weeks ago.

Secrets of the Trade is still my favorite of all my plays,” reveals Tolins, speaking from his home in Connecticut where he lives with his husband, playwright Robert Cary, and their two adopted children. “It’s also the only commission I ever wrote.”

Tolins’s work has been produced on Broadway, off-Broadway, and around the world. With his screenwriting partner Seth E. Bass, he wrote the film adaptation of The Twilight of the Golds for Showtime and Martian Child starring John Cusack for New Line. He also wrote Night-Rap for HBO, the first season of Queer As Folk on Showtime, two years of Academy Awards ceremonies, and the 2003 Tony Awards. He was a co-writer of Bette Midler’s Miss Millennium Tour and wrote special material for her Vegas extravaganza, The Showgirl Must Go On.

So often Tolins’s plays deal with burning contemporary issues.

“You don’t really ‘decide’ what to write,” he says. “You write your plays, and you gravitate toward the things that make you most passionate. I was always the one who wrote for the school shows, and I still write plays like the ones I enjoyed as a kid. I tend to focus on issues that we deal with in our lives, and I hope I approach them with warmth and humanity.”

What sort of plays is Tolins thinking of from his youth?

“Well, you may jump to a conclusion, but I think of the humor and humanity of Neil Simon,” he says. “He often doesn’t get much respect, because his style was taken over by television. But at his best, writing about Jewish families and what happens within those families with insight and humor, he was a master of that style.

“It is an odd time to be a playwright,” adds Tolins. “I go to the annual Dramatists Guild meeting, and it seems as if they are writing all of these rules to benefit ten people! Most plays never get produced anywhere. The board members of the Dramatists Guild are the only playwrights getting produced. Only a very small handful of writers make a living in the theater. I actually make my living writing for Hollywood. My husband and I write musicals. Plays for the stage make me the happiest, but they are also my biggest heart breakers. And as theater becomes more and more corporate, it gets worse and worse.”

Actually, while Secrets of the Trade is his most recent play, Tolins reveals that he began the partially autobiographical script before The Last Sunday in June.

“It was a commission for South Coast Rep in California,” he says, “but they never did it. It was done at Black Dahlia Theatre in Los Angeles where it was a huge hit and won all sorts of awards. Then it went to New York. John Glover starred in both productions. We got great reviews, everywhere but in the New York Times, and as you know, that one paper makes all the difference.”

Tolins has been very successful in California, and, of course in Buffalo. New York has flirted with the work, but his career has never ignited there.

“Plays follow New York,” he observes. “Therefore most plays don’t get done very much. Artistic directors around the country Google the New York reviews and that’s that. To tell you the truth, I’m delighted that there’s a pocket of enthusiasm for my work up in Buffalo!”

Secrets of the Trade has been directed by Drew McCabe. It will play at the BUA Theater (119 West Chippewa Street) through April 1. Call 886-9239.