This review was corrected June 3, 2003.
Scripter Bob Clyman is getting a lot of mileage out of this intense four-character legiter, set in the rarified atmosphere of high-level cancer research. Having preemed last year Off Broadway at the Ensemble Studio Theater, “The Secret Order” is slated for a Broadway debut in the fall and is in development for the bigscreen as well. This current manifestation at the Laguna Playhouse certainly exudes the crackle and sparks characteristic of the interactions of highly important people doing highly important things. But it fails to generate the compelling dramatic throughline needed to successfully leg its way up to the Great White Way. Helmer Michael Sexton and a generally competent ensemble inject impressive veracity and humor into the proceedings but cannot produce a sense of basic humanity given a script that has none.
Sexton certainly underscores every facet of the moral quandary faced by hotshot young cancer researcher Dr. William Shumway (Zak Orth) when his once-promising cancer cell experiments begin to fail. Initially, he’s caught up in the euphoria of having been plucked out of Midwest academic obscurity by pile-driving Dr. Robert Brock (Daniel Von Bargen), head of the nation’s leading cancer center in New York. But Shumway soon finds himself caught up in an ever-deepening quagmire of ethical conundrums as he attempts to keep pace with his boss’s promotional whirlwind. Brock’s manic drive is fueled by his belief that Shumway’s research can be hyped into the Noble Prize that eluded Brock years earlier.
Complicating Shumway’s life further is the laserlike intellectual intensity and sexual tension thrust on him by his comely young lab assistant, Alice Curiton (Shayna Ferm). She is so unrelentingly single-minded, Dr. Brock muses that her motto should be “If you don’t like the way I drive get off the sidewalk.” Shumway must also contend with the quietly scheming machinations of elderly Dr. Saul Roth (Howard Witt), who is fighting for his own survival at the research center.
The ongoing scientific research that fuels everyone’s agenda is never compelling or all that revealing. It is important merely because Shumway, Brock and Curiton act like it is important. There is not enough information communicated to truly empathize with the earth-shaking crises that occur in the second act.
Orth and Bargen inhabit their roles well but cannot transcend them. The initial scenes of the first act set up perfectly the cockeyed interactions between ever-reticent Shumway and the commanding Brock. Unfortunately, the relationship never really evolves. As Brock grows bolder and more demanding, Shumway becomes more reclusive and secretive. The inevitable second act cathartic blowups and accusations of betrayal ring hollow because there was never a tangible emotional connection between the two men to begin with.
There is even less happening between Shumway and his lab assistant, made even more unworkable by the stilted one-note portrayal by Ferm. The two never appear to ever be comfortable with one another. When she surprisingly asks, “Would you like to go to bed with me?,” it is with all the sexual fervor of an inquiry into whether it’s time to feed the lab mice. Curiton’s eventual second act rise in prominence as Shumway declines is as predictable as it is unsatisfying.
The most rewarding portrayal in the production is turned in by Witt as guileful, quietly crafty Dr. Roth. He successfully communicates life-earned skills of an academic warrior who utilizes only what is necessary from his deep reserves of intelligence and ingenuity.
The star of the production has to be the wonderfully fluid, mobile set design of Narelle Sissons that flows seamlessly from one environment to another. His work is complemented by the evocative lighting of Paulie Jenkins that never fails to underscore the mood of each scene.