Monday, July 12, 2010

Theater feature: 'Secret Order' director has faith in it, but play needs more work

Nick Duckart and Gordon McConnell in Secret Order.

By Hap Erstein

Tom Bloom does not give up on a play easily.

The New York actor-turned-director began helping to develop Bob Clyman’s‭ ‬Secret Order,‭ ‬a drama of ideas about a cure for cancer that runs into a buzzsaw of research politics,‭ ‬some‭ ‬15‭ ‬years ago.‭ ‬He not only directs the production that opened at the Caldwell Theatre this weekend,‭ ‬but when featured actor Gordon McConnell was hospitalized unexpectedly with symptoms of disorientation on Saturday,‭ ‬Bloom subbed in the role by Sunday,‭ ‬script in hand.

‭“‬I started reading early drafts of it,‭ ‬and was involved with it all the way up to its aborted Broadway run,‭” ‬Bloom said during rehearsals.‭ ‬The play,‭ ‬which has not had much luck,‭ ‬medically speaking,‭ ‬was on track to open on Broadway in‭ ‬2005,‭ ‬until John Spencer‭ (‬of TV’s‭ ‬The West Wing‭) ‬succumbed to cancer,‭ ‬scuttling that commercial production.

Spencer was to have played Robert Brock,‭ ‬a formerly promising research scientist turned abrasive laboratory administrator,‭ ‬McConnell’s role at the Caldwell.‭ ‬When Brock reads a paper by naïve but talented young scientist William Shumway on a new approach to killing off cancer cells,‭ ‬he brings him to New York and lavishes attention and resources on him.‭ ‬But as Shumway’s lab results start going bad,‭ ‬he hides the data,‭ ‬putting the cure and his career in jeopardy.

‭“‬I’ve always been interested in science,‭” ‬says Bloom of his attraction to the script.‭ “‬Bob‭ (‬Clyman‭) ‬is a psychologist and he’s always written about things with a scientific connection.‭ ‬In Bob’s plays there is often a central character who is in a situation that spirals downward out of control.‭ ‬Not through a tragic flaw,‭ ‬unless you can consider innocence a flaw.‭ ‬In this play,‭ ‬his naïveté‭ ‬is what allows the younger character to go down the hole.‭ ‬When he wrote this one about cloudy ethics that get murkier,‭ ‬it just sort of took my interest.‭”

If science is not your thing,‭ ‬Bloom feels you can still enjoy‭ ‬Secret Order.‭ “‬Yes,‭ ‬the science is important,‭ ‬but what we’re really watching is the relationship between a very naïve,‭ ‬almost literally fatherless,‭ ‬young scientist and this mentor who runs an enormously powerful organization.‭ ‬There’s a kind of father-son relationship that develops between them that gets threatened.‭ ‬So there’s a potential scientific loss as well as a personal loss.‭”

Coincidentally,‭ ‬Bloom and the Caldwell’s new artistic director,‭ ‬Clive Cholerton,‭ ‬worked together as actors‭ ‬20‭ ‬years ago at a summer theater in Monmouth,‭ ‬Maine.‭ ‬They had lost track of each other,‭ ‬but when Bloom heard of Cholerton’s new position,‭ ‬he sent him a copy of‭ ‬Secret Order and it quickly landed on the Caldwell’s summer schedule.

Bloom has seen other regional productions of the play and feels that some of them have erred by‭ “‬going to the sentimental side.‭” ‬Massachusetts‭’ ‬Merrimack Repertory Theatre brought the play off-Broadway three years ago,‭ ‬but as Bloom puts it,‭ “‬That production,‭ ‬for my money,‭ ‬was a little soft.‭ ‬It didn’t have the bite that the play can have.‭ ‬The young scientist should really find himself in a shark’s world.‭”

‭ * * *

The unfortunate medical mishap of Gordon McConnell aside‭ ‬--‭ ‬and let’s hope it is not any more serious than that,‭ ‬the problems with‭ ‬Secret Order are not with the Caldwell production.‭ ‬Yes,‭ ‬it felt under rehearsed by Friday’s opening performance,‭ ‬but that seems minor next to the overwritten and underedited script.‭ ‬Instead of the much-massaged and tested‭ ‬15-year-old script that it is,‭ ‬it comes off like an early draft,‭ ‬which often bogs down in the minutiae of scientific methodology.

There are plenty of ideas worth pondering here‭ ‬--‭ ‬science versus commerce,‭ ‬personal interests versus community welfare,‭ ‬adhering to accepted work standards versus saving lives‭ ‬--‭ ‬but they are introduced so inertly,‭ ‬buried in verbiage.‭ ‬There is a natural interest in these topics,‭ ‬but you are likely to have your‭ ‬patience tested over the course of the two-and-a-half-hours-plus running time of‭ ‬Secret Order.

The script centers on young William Shumway,‭ ‬played by Nick Duckart‭ (‬The Whipping Man‭) ‬initially as a Midwest bumpkin.‭ ‬His performance grows more subtle,‭ ‬as the character becomes more acclimated to the urban environment.‭ ‬If Shumway remains in over his head,‭ ‬Duckart never is.‭ ‬In the past year,‭ ‬he has done a handful of major roles at theaters throughout South Florida,‭ ‬an important addition to the area’s acting pool.

McConnell was having noticeable trouble with his lines at Friday night’s opening performance and some of that may have been due to his medical condition.‭ ‬Still,‭ ‬he is well cast as Robert Brock,‭ ‬projecting an impatient arrogance,‭ ‬bullying his way through all situations,‭ ‬with a gruff exterior that he gradually lets us see beneath.

Katie Cunningham and Howard Elfman fill out the company as Shumway’s eager student assistant/prospective love interest and as an aging scientist in Brock’s corral whose stock keeps falling as Shumway’s rises.‭ ‬Both characters are little more than dramatic contrivances,‭ ‬underlings who eventually get the upper hand a bit too predictably.

We need plays like‭ ‬Secret Order that tackle big themes and issues,‭ ‬but Clyman seems to have stuffed his script with too many ideas.‭ ‬Oddly,‭ ‬the Caldwell insists on labeling the play‭ “‬a comedic thriller,‭” ‬when it is neither comic nor thrilling.

SECRET ORDER,‭ ‬Caldwell Theatre Company,‭ ‬7901‭ ‬N.‭ ‬Federal Highway,‭ ‬Boca Raton.‭ ‬Through Sunday,‭ ‬Aug.‭ ‬2.‭ ‬Tickets:‭ ‬$38-$45.‭ ‬Call:‭ (‬561‭) ‬241-7432‭ ‬or‭ (‬877‭) ‬245-7432.‭

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