The plot is not quite ripped from the headlines because the play is more than seven years old, but with a Washington University physician and professor fired recently because of some similar ethical lapses, "Secret Order," which opened last night at the Rep Studio, shines a light on some shadows that have dimmed many reputations in academic, scientific and political arenas in recent years.
Bob Clyman's drama, which opened the Studio's 2009-10 season, will run through Nov. 15, showing off four terrific performances under taut direction by Risa Brainin.
Richmond Hoxie is exciting and powerful as Dr. Robert Brock, head of a research foundation, loaded with persuasion and not above bullying, nor above stooping to lie, cheat and steal while in the bitterly overweaning search for money, glory and more money, and if some medical benefits accrue along the way, well, that's a lagniappe, kind of like bugs sticking to the windshield.
Stan Lachow is old and wise as Dr. Saul Roth, filled with folksy Jewish humor; he must have had a marvelous bedside manner. Now, with retirement looming, he has lost a struggle for power and prestige to Brock, and he hates losing.
Todd Lawson, as Dr. William Shumway, just gleams with sincerity. He reminds me of Dr. Martin Arrowsmith, hero of a book by Sinclair Lewis. Shumway dreams of finding a cure for cancer, but instead finds himself trapped in the inner workings of a power struggle, and the more he thinks he has found an answer, the farther the answer slides away from him.
Angela Lin is Alice Curiton, driven to climb the rocky ridges of the research mountain. She is obviously brilliant, tough and a post-doctoral candidate in her ability to lie, cheat and steal. She is not afraid to use any of those tactics, plus an offer sex and several other methods she thinks up on the fly.
Clyman, a psychologist, sets his story brilliantly, drops some good lines into the mix. Brock becomes Shumway's protector, and also press agent and tutor in the ways and the wiles of the research game, which segues easily into the drug company game, the money game, even the Nobel Prize game. Shumway, blinded by Brock's familiarity with power and his apparent control of every situation, slips into some obvious traps.
The quartet of actors, playing in perfect harmony, are a joy to watch. Clyman's story finds some too-pat answers, but ethical difficulties have no easy solutions. All four of the actors, no matter what they say, have feet of clay and, sometimes, heads to match. Nevertheless, it's a solid evening of strong theater, the sort of performance to which we have become accustomed in the Studio space.
A Repertory Theatre production in the Studio, through Nov. 15