Those concerns are readily apparent in a body of stage- and screenwriting that has touched on the Jewish family and sexual politics ("Twilight of the Golds"), the geography of gay life ("Last Sunday in June") and the distinctive tangle of love and human frailty that gets exposed through the process of adoption ("Martian Child").
While the work he has done for film and television (including several episodes of "Queer as Folk") has afforded him a comfortable life, "My heart is in playwriting," Tolins says. "What I love most -- ambiguity and complexity -- I can do best in the theater."
Tolins is indeed at his best in "Secrets of the Trade" (currently running at the Black Dahlia Theater through April 20), a work that the playwright calls his "baby" and his "favorite" out of all the things he has written.
While the underlying thread of "Secrets of the Trade" is somewhat autobiographical -- like Andy Lipman, the play's Broadway-smitten central character, Tolins as a teenager wrote a fan letter that led to a tempestuous, revelatory mentor relationship with an older gay man -- the playwright's interest in "Secrets of the Trade" extends well beyond the points at which the storyline intersects with his own narrative.
"It's a play about family," Tolins says, "particularly the expectations one has with one's child."
That angle of artistic inquiry leads Tolins into some rich but very rough terrain -- just the place an artist wants to be. It comes as no surprise then that Tolins gets the transformative and sometimes combustive alchemy of mentorship exactly right as he explores how Andy's relationship with his mentor affects the other members of his family.
That rightness shines nowhere more brightly than in an exchange between Martin Kerner, the gray-tinged lion of the New York theater whom Tony-winner John Glover brings to life with plenty of snarling and purring, and Joanne Lipman (Amy Aquino), mother of recently-out-of-the-closet Andy, the brilliant Harvard undergraduate and cast-album aficionado whose spark Kerner has decided to nurture.
"What is this world of talented gay men passing on their secrets?" Joanne asks Marty as the two of them face off in Marty's office.
Marty assures Joanne that while erotic attraction figures into his relationship with Andy, there are no secrets -- sexual or otherwise -- passing between him and her son.
"I'm simply giving him permission to become himself as fully as possible," he says.
When Joanne wonders what Marty gets out of the bargain, he replies, "I get to look into a beautiful, intelligent face that sees none of my personal failures."
This scene in the play's second act is as much about Joanne's loss -- of her son's unquestioning admiration, of her status as a "cool" teacher at the Long Island high school where she works, of her own youthful aspirations as a dancer -- as it as about Andy's sexual and artistic awakening.
Earlier, in the first act, as Joanne and her husband Peter (Mark L. Taylor) discuss Andy's blossoming relationship with his idol, Joanne confides that it has been a long time since she has seen the look in the eyes of a student that says, "You are opening up new worlds to me."
"I never thought I'd see that look on a kid's face again," Joanne laments. "Now I have, and it's not for me."
Tolins says he counts Joanne's revelations among "the moments I feel I got just right. That's why I got such great actors" -- including relative newcomer Edward Tournier, who as the play's starry-eyed, apple-cheeked purveyor of "that look" turns in work that displays a maturity beyond his meager years.
Still, getting those moments of parental anguish "just right" entails some apprehension as well as satisfaction for Tolins. He and his partner, writer-director Robert Cary ("Ira and Abby," "Anything But Love") recently adopted a 4-year-old girl named Selina.
The sweet love of childhood, the pain that often accompanies the separation and disillusionment of young adulthood and the deeper love that comes with an adult child's mature appreciation of his or her parents are all in the mix for Tolins.
"These are themes that any Jewish parent will recognize," he says.
Trust the man. He knows.
"Secrets of the Trade," Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun. 7 p.m. Through April 20. $25. Black Dahlia Theater, 5453 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. For more information, call (323) 525-0070 or visit http://www.thedahlia.com/
John Glover, left, Bill Brochtrup and Edward Tournier in "Secrets of the Trade." Photo by Eb Brooks
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