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The Secret Order

We all have our biases in favor of particular subject matter. I just love plays about science. I can't help it; somewhere inside this theatre geek is a frustrated math nerd. So I just adore plays that treat science and scientists with respect, plays about intelligent characters dealing with intellectual problems and the moral and ethical issues implicated by them. Happily, Bob Clyman's Broadway-bound play, The Secret Order, is such a venture.

And it isn't the sort of thing that is so caught up in its science that you have to spend half the first half surreptitiously glancing at the program notes in order to understand what on earth the characters are talking about. The science at the heart of The Secret Order is explained in perfectly straightforward language and illustrated by easy-to-understand graphics projected on a screen above the set. Cancer cells are shown in red, normal cells are shown in blue, and specially-engineered cells are shown in green. The play follows the journey of Dr. Shumway, a scientist who believes he has created a green cell that can turn red cells into blue ones.

Shumway's special green cells have worked their magic in a petri dish, at his small midwestern university. A paper he has written detailing his results catches the eye of Dr. Brock, the head of a much more prestigious facility in New York. Brock offers Shumway a position with him - his own lab and all the mice he needs to do the next step of his research.

And right there, Shumway is presented with his very first ethical dilemma, although it is presented so subtlely, he hardly realizes it. His supervisor doesn't believe the experiment has progressed enough to move into mice at this time; is Shumway justified in cutting a little corner by skipping over repeating his experiment in glass in order to accept Brock's offer and move into a bigger, better funded facility? And what of the issue of funding? If Shumway accepts Brock's offer, he is leaving his own university in the dust and depriving it of the funding and prestige it would receive if he kept his breakthrough there. But Shumway accepts, feeling confident he will lose nothing by moving into mice, and unable to resist the well-funded lab Brock can offer. Moreover, there's an interesting personal dynamic at work here - Shumway idolizes Brock and does not want to disappoint the older scientist who is actually showing interest in his work.

And so it begins. Shumway takes the position with Brock, and somehow he thinks that all that is required is to keep cranking out cancer-free mice. Brock introduces him to the real world of scientific research, where the key isn't so much getting the results, but figuring out the proper way to present them in order to keep the money flowing.

The two actors taking on these roles are just delightful. Zak Orth plays Shumway with just the right amount of nerdy innocence - he isn't completely at sea with interpersonal relationships, but he certainly prefers working in his lab to networking at a conference. Daniel Von Bargen is just shy of perfect as Brock. He comes on as a steamroller, fast-talking over Shumway and leaping ahead in the conversation, simply assuming Shumway is reading his subtext. When he takes a moment to allow himself to actually share the excitement of Shumway's discovery, his boyish giddiness is charming.

Two other players round out the show. Howard Witt plays Dr. Roth, an older researcher at Brock's facility who finds his funding cut when Brock decides to put all his eggs in Shumway's basket. But Roth knows the game as well as Brock does, and his slight absent-mindedness hides a ruthless adversary. The one weak link in the show is Shayna Ferm as Alice, a pushy grad student who talks her way into an assistant's position in Shumway's lab. Ferm's posing and self-important prattling are completely implausible, but Alice is a poor character to begin with - could there be anything more trite than the smart student who pretends she has an appointment for an interview (although she does not) and then impresses the hell out of her future employer with her passion for the work and brilliant innovative ideas? I nearly cheered when Brock put her in her place and Shumway told her that her good idea had already been tried. But this good playwriting was undermined when Brock and Shumway gave her a job anyway and (wouldn't you know it?) Shumway finds he does his best work with Alice, despite the fact that he has other assistants who are actually qualified for the job.

Alice also has the final scene in the play, which is totally unnecessary. The play would work better if Alice were removed and the play ended after a more powerful scene between Brock and Shumway. The complex relationship between the older but wiser scientist and the young man with nothing but an earth-shattering discovery on his hands is what the play is all about - not the young assistant who (ugh) knows everything and (double ugh) throws herself at her boss because she finds him so attractive.

The play's writing is, otherwise, crisp and frequently funny. When Shumway glares disapprovingly at Roth for smoking, Roth replies, "So find a cure already." Once or twice, the play even ventures into Stoppard-esque territory, and a character will wax philosophical on the nature of scientific discovery or the universe's relationship to God. But mostly, The Secret Order is an engaging if not deeply engrossing play which concerns itself with smart people in the crucible of competition for prestige and dollars.

The Secret Order runs at the Laguna Playhouse through June 29, 2003.

Laguna Playhouse; Richard Stein, Executive Director; Andrew Barnicle, Artistic Director, present, by arrangement with Norman Twain Productions, Tanya Doyla, Associate Producer, The Secret Order by Bob Clyman. Scenic Design by Narelle Sissons; Costume Design by Dwight Richard Odle; Lighting Design by Paulie Jenkins; Sound Design by David Edwards; Projection Design by Mark Rosenthal; New York Stage Manager Dan Shaheen; Production Manager Jim Ryan; Casting by Judy Henderson; New York General Manager Sherman Gross; Production Stage Manager Nancy Staiger; Directed by Michael Sexton.

Dr. William Shumway - Zak Orth
Dr. Robert Brock - Daniel Von Bargen
Alice Curiton - Sayna Ferm
Dr. Saul Roth - Howard Witt

Photo by Ed Krieger

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