A young scientist’s possible cure for cancer is at the heart of Bob Clyman’s bio-medical drama, Secret Order, currently at 59E59 Theaters. But while the play wrestles with a number of provocative ethical issues, certain aspects of the script also prove problematic.
Immunologist William Shumway (Dan Colman) is working in relative obscurity at a university in Illinois when a paper he’s written on a radically new way to treat cancer brings him to the attention of Robert Brock (Larry Pine), director of Hill-Matheson, the (fictional) leading New York City cancer institute. Brock takes the young scientist under his wing, setting him on a path to fame and glory. Shumway’s work earns him the devotion of pretty young student assistant Alice Curiton (Jessi Campbell) and the rivalry of veteran scientist Saul Roth (Kenneth Tigar), whose own programs were cut and his salary diminished to free up funds for Shumway’s research.
After Shumway’s experiments begin to yield results that contradict his initial findings, he is faced with the difficult decision of trying to solve the problem before anyone notices or to admit that his theory may be wrong, risking not just the disappointment of Brock — who has become a kind of father figure to him — but the loss of the prestige and pharmaceutical company interest that could prove critical to the continuation of his work.
All four of the characters wrestle with difficult personal and professional decisions throughout the play, particularly towards the high-stakes conclusion. Director Charles Tower paces the action briskly, letting the momentum build to each of these important moments where the characters have to make their tough choices.
The play runs into trouble, however, with its representation of Roth, which comes across as pronouncedly anti-Semitic. Clyman takes great pains to establish him as Jewish, having him speak of a Sephardic uncle who “came over in the Diaspora on a camel,” and how his people “waited 40 years in the desert.” And then the playwright proceeds to make Roth a one-dimensional villain. Yes, his vindictiveness is born out of an understandable resentment, but he’s the only character in the script that isn’t given a sympathetic side.
Brock, for instance, is full of contradictions and often cruel in his decisions. And yet, Clyman gives him a great deal of complexity. Pine’s terrific performance also fleshes him out and makes the audience understand the fears and ambitions that drive Brock to make the not-so-great choices that he does.
Colman also does some good work here, capturing Shumway’s anxieties and reticence to admit his mistakes until it’s too late. Campbell’s Alice strikes the same strident note over and over, and a little more variety would have been useful to develop her character. Still, Alice holds the moral high ground — at least until the ambiguous ending. Tigar does what’s required of him as Roth, but can’t overcome the limitations of what he has to work with.
The play’s conclusion is also a let-down. The dramatic highpoint occurs one scene prior, and Clyman should have been content to leave it there, as it provided a sense of bittersweet closure. Instead, the author goes on to include yet one more murky ethical decision, which is thematically resonant with the play as a whole, but feels anticlimactic.