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A CurtainUp Review
The Secret Order

So imagine your body's a community, and your cells are the people who live there. The dream of every cell is to be immortal. . . to make endless copies of itself, but the community Can only use so many liver cells and no more than two eyes, so your cells need to cooperate. . . .— Dr. William Shumway
Dan Colman & Larry Pine in The Secret Order
Dan Colman & Larry Pine in The Secret Order (Photo: Carol Rosegg)
The intrigues and machinations that go on behind the scenes in Hollywood and in the boardrooms of the corporate world have been well documented. But when it comes to the ivory tower where medical research supposedly resides, we like to think motives are noble and actions are honorable. In Bob Clyman's The Secret Order, that myth is exploded with insight, irony and humor.

The Secret Order is brought to 59E59 Theaters by Merrimack Repertory Theater under the masterful direction of Charles Towers. For thoughtful audiences, it will be a shot in the arm of this year's theater season.

Clyman's spare play needs only four characters to make its point. Dr. William Shumway (Dan Colman) is a brilliant, idealistic and somewhat timid researcher who comes very close to finding a cure for cancer. When Dr. Robert Brock (Larry Pine), the director of New York City's leading cancer institute, reads Shumway's paper and realizes the possibilities he asks Shumway to leave his university and come join his team.

At the institute, Shumway becomes associated with the passionate and determined Alice Curiton (Jessi Campbell), an undergraduate researcher who manages to secure a position through charm, guile and a touch of deceit. He also meets the cloying and insidious Dr. Saul Roth (Kenneth Tigar), an aging researcher clinging to the past and his post with vicious tenacity.

The play's central problem is the difficulty of balancing the practical and the idealistic sides of research. When research produces unwelcome results, Shumway and Brock face hard decisions that affect their personal futures and the future of their science.

But this is not Ibsen's An Enemy of the People. Clyman has no agenda. He is only partly concerned with the moral implications of his characters' dilemmas. He is equally focused on how each personality deals with the issues and how their decisions reflect their personal needs and desires at that time.

Although Colman, Campbell and Tigar are all superb in their roles, this is really Pine's show, in great part because Clyman has written Brock as the most interesting character, but also because of Pine's overwhelming presence. He takes Brock's complicated personality and turns it inside out, exploring Brock's fascinating mixture of pain and pride, loyalty and self-interest, idealism, pragmatism and cynicism.

The other attraction of this play is Clyman's magnificent use of the English language. In his capable hands, lengthy speeches about how cells attack each other become epic dramas and renegade cells are turned into a moral issue. At times Clyman's prose sounds a little like science fiction at its very best. At other times, it has the cutting subtlety of a work by an expert dramatist.

Clyman also has a definite flair for biting humor. Jibes like Brock's remark to Alice, "Miss Curiton, you want something very badly from me. So if you find me a little patronizing, my suggestion is. . .live with it", are sprinkled throughout. And the fact that the actors have perfect timing doesn't hurt.

The playwright never looks for cheap tricks. He doesn't force a love interest to spice up the action, and he keeps profanity down to the essential and appropriate minimum. This is the kind of play you could (and should) take your 17-year-old son or daughter to see. It asks the adult questions youngsters will soon be asking themselves.

Despite the precise language, Secret Order is filled with ambiguity. Does money corrupt? Do the ends justify the means? Is loyalty always a virtue? Is honesty? These are just a few of the unanswered questions . Even the final scene says everything but resolves nothing.

Clyman has the humility and perception to let the audience make up its own mind about what lies in the future for his characters. This is just one of his many virtues.

Editor's Note: The Secret Order debuted as part of Ensemble Studio's 2002 First Light Festival. While it has undergone major changes, the play's promise was evident from the start. To read a review of that first version go here. For links to other science and technology plas we've reviewed, see our Science Plays page here.

By Bob Clyman
Directed by Charles Towers
Cast: Larry Pine (Robert Brock), Dan Colman (William Shumway), Jessi Campbell (Alice Curiton), Kenneth Tigar (Saul Roth)
. Scene Designer: Bill Clarke
Costumer Designer: Martha Hally
Lighting Designer: Dan Kotlowitz
Running Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes with one intermission
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th St. between Park and Madison www.59e59. (212) 279-4200 org
From 11/9/07, opening 11/15/07, closing 12/9/07
Tuesday through Friday 8 PM, Saturday 2 PM and 8 PM, Sunday 3 PM and 7 PM
Tickets: $50
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons Nov. 13, 2007 press preview

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