nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
November 13, 2007
Bob Clyman's Secret Order is a taut, stimulating drama about the moral and ethical dilemmas involved in the high stakes world of medical research. In this case, what's at stake is no less than a possible cure for cancer, and Clyman probes it with thoughtful intelligence. Merrimack Repertory Theatre's excellent production bolsters the script with strong performances and direction.
The potential cancer cure is discovered in the experiments of William Shumway, a Minnesota research scientist whose work quickly gets the attention of the New York-based Hill-Matheson, the world's leading cancer research institute. Robert Brock, the institute's high-powered director, whisks William away to the Big Apple and sets him up with all the money and resources he needs. Brock not only sees the obvious dollar signs but increased prestige (ongoing mentions of the Nobel Prize proliferate). William also soon gets a feisty and eager student assistant, Alice Curiton, whose scientific talent matches her passion for the work.
But, when William's experiments start reversing themselves with increasingly discouraging results, he is faced with a terrible quandary: trying to solve the problem before anyone notices, or letting the cat out of the bag and risking everything—his work, his reputation, and the father-figure mentorship of Brock. An added element of concern is the presence of Saul Roth, Hill-Matheson's Chief of Toxicology, who is angling for a board room power play over Brock.
Clyman presents a challenging argument for both sides of the equation. On the one hand, William is smart enough to find a solution on his own, but may not have either the savvy or the time to hold off the powers that be. On the other hand, he's withholding crucial information from his employers that could lead to legal trouble for everyone. What William decides to do—and how he decides to do it—is the moral crux of Secret Order.
Then, there are the numerous ways Clyman establishes character, like Brock's dislike for being interrupted and his penchant for hyperbole (to drive home William's value to the board, Brock likens him to "beachfront property"). Alice's youthful stridency is described by one person as "a thousand poodles barking at once." And, no matter how much big-city seasoning he gets, William still always has one half of his shirt untucked.
Charles Towers smartly directs the production according to the ebbs and flows of William's developments. Bill Clarke's set design nicely complements Towers's work, punctuating the clinical sparseness of William's new life. Veteran actor Larry Pine leads the cast with a canny turn as Brock, embracing the character's many messy contradictions. Dan Colman is grounded and appropriately low-key as William, fleshing out a role that could easily slip into caricature. Jessi Campbell and Kenneth Tigar do fine work as Alice and Saul, respectively, in a pair of roles that could also fall victim to stereotype.
Secret Order is an all-around satisfying effort, sort of like a Michael Crichton/Robin Cook bio-thriller that focuses on internal struggle instead of action movie intrigue. Clyman has written a smart and thought-provoking script which gets top-of-the-line treatment by Merrimack Repertory Theatre's splendid production. Check this one out.