Tuesday, November 13, 2007

PLAY: "Secret Order"

Photo/Carol Rosegg

Chemical strings like bc12 and p55 have never been so exciting to the layman before: in that regard, Bob Clyman's new Mametian play is a success. At the same time, Clyman builds medical suspense at the cost of realism, amping up the basest components of character so that for all their bellowing, they are unflappable in the dramatic wind. Thankfully, it's not all hot air: Clyman's plotting is airtight (if a bit predictable), and although the characters are obvious, when the actors are on, they're an exaggerated delight.

We first meet William Shumway (Dan Colman), the well-intentioned rube of the play, a scientist from Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, who may have just stumbled upon the cure for cancer. It isn't long before he's approached by the brusque and confident Robert Brock (Larry Pine), a twice-nominated scientist, respected elder, and father figure, all rolled into one. He's quickly coerced into a job with Hill-Matheson in New York City (the pacing zips from lecture to phone call to live visit to job in under three minutes of smooth storytelling), and soon after meets an excitable undergraduate, Alice Curiton (Jessi Campbell), and irritable codger, Saul Roth (Kenneth Tigar), his jealous rival from Toxicology. As pressures mount (with high expectations generated and then manufactured by Dr. Brock), Shumway makes an unethical decision to hide his results: not lying, exactly, but far from honest. Charles Tower's direction, minimal in design, and always jumping to the middle of action, helps to make the unspoken conflict into a central character: Shumway is always caught in the spotlight.

But the play falters when the characters miss their beats: rhythms that are already artificially inflated really need to be said by an actor with a pulse. When Larry Pine is on, the show is electric, sucked into his brash and biting enthusiasm ("My grandson talks about fair, and he's five."), his manipulative wit ("Why bother lying to him if he doesn't know it's a lie?"), and his sardonic affability ("Were you severely beaten as a small boy for talking too much?"). But more often than not, Pine is stumbling over his lines, looking far from persuasive: blustery, yes, but effective, no. And this in turn spoils the dynamic between him and Mr. Colman, who is obviously playing dumb, holding his charisma in reserve so as to play a struggling scientist. Worse still, when Pine loses his humanity, he makes Mr. Tigar seem even less likeable, more a malicious force for revenge than the slighted and wrathful elder that he should be. In turn, between all these exaggerated archetypes, Ms. Campbell gets lost in the kerfuffle, a pushy character who is so likable that she's forgettable.

Ultimately, the play doesn't really say anything that's all too surprising about the medical industry, and the shallow ethics on display, all half-truths and dodges, aren't as loaded as Clyman would like them to be. The play actually works best in the awkward relationship between prideful father-figure (Brock) and prodigious son (Shumway), which again, only works when Mr. Pine is nailing his lines. But Clyman doesn't have that much of a spine to fall back on: beyond his scathing lines and accessible science, Secret Order is an actor's play, and that's no secret.

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