If real-world scientists found a potential cure for cancer, the world would be riveted. Onstage, however, graphs, charts and academic papers aren’t all that gripping, yet they are the focal points of “Secret Order,” Bob Clyman’s lumbering play about ethics in the scientific community. A few jabs at personal relationships aside, the show is a two-hour march through very dry terrain.
More than one scene shows young scientist William (Dan Colman) counting the number of green dots on a slide projection. Those dots are “R-cells,” which William thinks will stop all forms of cancer. If his experiments work — if there are enough dots on the slide — he could win a Nobel Prize, impress his boss Robert (Larry Pine) and wow his student assistant, Alice (Jessi Campbell). If they don’t, he’ll damage his own career and the reputations of everyone around him.
But urgency isn’t communicated as William stands there counting. And pulses don’t race when characters say things like “Ten groups of mice were injected with the human equivalent of a level-four carcinoma.”
Director Charles Towers — a.d. of Merrimack Rep in Massachusetts, where the play originally preemed — is content to keep these brainy conversations static. He often has his actors face the audience, as though lecturing, or he’ll keep them in the same side-profile for minutes at a time. Bill Clarke’s set further dampens the experience, since it basically consists of a gray metal table and some chairs.
To be fair, it’s obvious that Clyman doesn’t want dull facts to be the play’s driving force, but his attempts at emotion are both shallow and awkward. When the characters talk about themselves, they sound like caricatures in lab coats.
Alice, for instance, is the Mouthy Hotshot, and her rebellious attitude is more predictable than scandalous. Because she’s the only woman in a schematic world, she’s also required to create sexual tension, but her offer to sleep with William feels randomly airlifted from another play.
Thesps do their best with thankless roles. William is written as an asocial doormat, and Colman admirably avoids overplaying his geekiness. However, that means he doesn’t make much of an impression.
Pine, who struggled for lines at the perf reviewed, gives Robert a one-note brashness as he pesters William about publishing his results. His choices invalidate a late revelation that he’s supposed to be a father figure to his young employee, but that plot wrinkle wouldn’t have felt genuine anyway.
Only Kenneth Tigar, as an aging, obsolete scientist named Saul, projects multiple dimensions. Manipulating everyone for his own ends, he masks his treachery in supposed dedication to his work. For a few moments, when his arrogance and desperation are exposed, the play feels human. But the spark comes too late to bring the production to life.