Reviewed by Jeffrey R Smith of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle

The San Jose Repertory Company is currently presenting SECRET ORDER written by Bob Clyman and directed by Chris Smith.

The play approximates the content and trajectory of a morality play: a compromise, followed by a cover-up, followed by a moral landslide.

William Shumway, an earnest and naïve cellular biologist from Wisconsin, (played marvelously by James Wagner) is discovered by a major east coast pharmaceutical company.

He is recruited by a slathering washed-up scientist: Robert Brock (played to a tee by Robert Krakovski) who has supplanted his own scientific inquiry with ambition, simony and power brokering.

Shumway, is soon joined by a Harvard undergraduate: Alica Curiton (played by Kathryn Tkel).

The first step on the highway to moral or ethical degradation is expectation, the second is ego, the third is compromise, the fourth is deception and the accelerating slide seems to fan out in all directions from there on.

Mike Bruggeman, a high mugwump in the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, who specialized in Counter Intelligence used the acronym: MICE.

It stood for Money, Ideology, Compromise and Ego.

SECRET ORDER sticks close to this mnemonic device conjuring up each of ingredient while not necessarily sticking to any particular order.

While many of us have low expectations for the ethics of hedge fund managers, venture capitalists, our bookie, car salesmen, bureaucrats further up the food chain than dog catcher or meter maid, we entertain unrealistically high expectations for scientists.

Perhaps it is because, by definition, scientists are supposed to be seeking a higher order objective truth: examining the landscape through the unconditioned and unbiased lens of scientific inquiry.

When science gets distracted by the possibility of riches beyond Croesus, compromise finds an open window somewhere.

Clyman had originally titled has show THE SECRET ORDER, but strongly suspected that prospective audiences would assume that it was another fruitcake rehash of THE SECRET PROTOCALS OF THE ELDERS OF ZION, or more on the Masons, the Mormons, the DaVinci Code, the Federal Reserve, the World Bank, MOSAD, the Knights of Columbus or Dykes on Bikes.

Like Mark Zuckerberg did for Facebook, Clyman opted to drop the THE in the title.

Four characters start down the primrose path with what is a major breakthrough in the war on cancer as fought at the cellular level.

A certain DNA sequence is introduced to cancer cells that cause the cancer cells to communicate with other cancer cells.

Their message: “STOP reproducing!”

Momentarily at least the other cancer cells are fooled by these renegade “R cells” who are working for the biologist.

The ruse lasts long enough for the Doctor Shumway to publish his short lived success in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

The eagles begin to circle overhead with venture capital dollars to drop on the pharmaceutical company.

While Doctor Shumway knows that the “R cells” eventually become double agents and go back on the side of ordinary cancer cells, the world of venture pharmaceutical capital does not and Shumway and Brock tacitly agree to keep it that way.

There is no sensible way out of the situation other than by more ethical compromise on the part of one or more of the principles: after all, why give up on a seemingly promising idea until you are overwhelmed by failure.

Think of Laetrile, a placebo distilled from apricot pits; think of Viox and the Merck deception.

Think of cold fusion, super blue green algae, Echinacea, steel cut oats, Carter’s Little Liver Pills, Doctor Mesmer’s electro-magnetic Jacuzzi treatments, your massage therapist, acupuncture, unblended highland scotch, pulverized rhino horn, etc, etc.

Ultimately, Saul Roth (played wonderfully by Julian Lopez-Morillas) provides everyone with a quasi ethical parachute that keeps the right people in the battle against cancer.

A great show, rich with dramatic irony and well crafted dialogue: lines you can only wish you could have thought of or remembered for future use at the punchbowl.

For an enjoyable, intelligent evening, call the San Jose Rep box office at 408-367-7255.