Science Fiction in Secret Order

A researcher and his lab hardly seem like the stuff of edge-of-your-seat theater, but that's exactly what Bob Clyman creates in Secret Order, now running at the Alley Theatre. The tale of lab coats and deceit takes us into the high-stakes world of cancer research, where money, publishing and power are all tied to lab rats and promising results.

We first meet William Shumway (Dylan Chalfy), an unassuming researcher, as a young and gentle man in the Midwest. Full of hope and strong ethics, he's the sort of promising scientist who is deeply moved by the process of research. It's an almost religious experience for him, one that requires time and quiet meditation as he sort of listens for the secrets of the universe to reveal themselves. He is, in short, the perfect researcher. A bit of a geek, Shumway doesn't care a whit about getting famous or winning prizes — he just wants to have the time and the space to think out his theories and poke around the infinitely small universe of cellular ­biology.

Of course, such thinking and poking takes a great deal of money. The equipment alone is worth, say, a soul or two — at least, that's what the play implies. After Shumway sends off a paper to Robert Brock (Larry Pine), the head of a cancer research institute in New York, his life is forever changed, in ways the earnest young man could never have imagined.

His paper implies that he may have, in fact, discovered a cure for cancer. He's not sure, of course, as his theories and research need a good deal more time and testing, but the preliminary results are quite exciting, so much so that the imposing Brock offers Shumway a job on the spot. He'll have to move to New York — immediately. The young man hesitates — after all, he's got people counting on him where he is. But in his first of many Faustian choices, he gives in to the demanding Brock and agrees to pack up for New York right away.

Once there, he's given everything a researcher could want — animals, electronic equipment that can see down into the atomic depths of the world, even a young and whip-smart female assistant who adores his mind. The only thing he doesn't get is time. Brock wants results, and he wants them now. Of course, Shumway knows in his heart that time is the one thing he really needs.

Brock is the polar opposite of Shumway. Passed over for the Nobel Prize twice, the middle-aged has-been sees his scientific identity slipping away. As an administrator of a major research center, he's well paid, busy and well-respected, but he hasn't made the mark on science he'd always expected to. He sees Shumway and his research as a way into the scientific history books.

But Shumway wants to listen for the ideas, and Brock wants action. He pushes the young man to present his research at an important conference before Shumway is ready. The beginning results look good, but Shumway knows lots could still go wrong. When he argues that his mentor is being premature, that the research isn't quite ready, Brock shushes the young man. And when a blip in the research turns up just before Shumway's about to give his paper, Brock advises the researcher not to mention the problem, saying that it probably has more to do with the animals than with the research.

Once again, Shumway makes a deal with the devil and agrees to present his paper without saying anything about the negative results he's just discovered.

Layered into this story is the tale of Saul Roth (Kenneth Tigar), an over-the-hill researcher who spends a good deal of time being jealous of all the attention Shumway is getting. And when Brock takes all Roth's funding and gives it to Shumway, Roth starts plotting his revenge.

Of course, Shumway's world starts unraveling. And it's his female assistant, the eager Alice Curiton (Melissa Miller), who discovers all that Shumway has started to hide in his effort to get more time. Ironically, Alice represents everything Shumway left behind in the Midwest — ethics, brilliance and a simple love of science.

All four of the characters shape a terrifically tight plot, and the dynamic cast, under the sharp direction of Charles Towers, creates a high-stakes world that will keep you on the edge of your seat. Bill Clarke's glass and stainless steel set provide the perfect backdrop for the cold, slick wheeling and dealing each and every one of these characters ends up engaging in. Under Clyman's literary microscope, human desire is sliced up and examined to its very core.

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Lee Williams