SECRET ORDER THE SUNSET LIMITED
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. THE SUNSET LIMITED
Reviewed by Jeffrey R Smith of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle
The San Francisco Playhouse is presently home to the west coast premiere of THE SUNSET LIMITED by Cormac McCarthy.
To say this show is brilliant would be an understatement.
Were the “little pink man” to watch this show, he would be launched out of his seat like a Nike missile: over his vacated seat, Libra would be visible.
As dark as Cormac McCarthy represents himself with such works as THE ROAD and NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, this show is an intelligent existential comedy with a clearly expressed redemptive hope for all of us who are self conscious, self absorbed, self delusional and or just swirling in the vortex of selfishness.
This show intimates that there is a path to self transcendence and a possibility of breaking the chains of tyranny clamped on us by our self indulgent egos.
No person, play, movie or comic book can compellingly answer the question: Do we go on living or grease the rails of the express train?
Like Hamlet,, Emmanuel Kant may have covered similar “to be or not be” issues in his CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON but who reads Kant anyway?
The life-death discussion in this play is riveting; it is both morally elevating—assuming there is such a thing as moral high ground—and cogently understandable even to those of us who graduated in the bottom ten percent from Chico State under the five year plan.
The play is as profound as it is simplistic.
There are two characters, no names: one black (played by Carl Lumbly) and one white (played by Charles Dean).
The white guy, a bohemian, has lost his zest for things bohemian or fears that the world has become too bourgeois.
The white guy is a college professor who, despite his tenure and bar stool at the faculty club, has attempted to intercept the Sunset Limited while it was chugging along at 85 miles per hour; the black guy has pulled him from the gleaming gristly tracks.
Aside from the “chimneys of Dachau” there seems to be little to have soured the professor on life other than his own centrifugal reflections and possibly reading too many term papers that were down-loaded by his marginally literate university students.
As for the black guy, he is an ex-con who has opted out of the criminal class much like Samuel L Jackson’s character in PULP FICTION: he dedicates himself to “just walking the earth.”
Much of the dialogue is Socratic; if English is your first, second or third language, the conspicuous richness of the philosophy expressed will be accessible to you: indeed inescapable.
Both Lumbly and Dean carefully chisel their words without over-articulating or sounding pedantic or sophomoric.
Lumbly captures the relaxed selflessness of the truly transcendent being: he is at home with himself and seems to embrace of all humanity: he has a Buddha nature to him.
Dean too has nailed his character: he absolutely exudes anhedonia and dread; like Agent Smith in THE MATRIX, he seems to stagger under the oppressive burden of being, thoughts and existence: the particularized conditioned consciousness.
The set design, at a minimum, is ascetic: grunge urban primitivism.
For a budget busting $61, Bill English, the award winning director and genius set designer, resourcefully bought all the salvaged materials to construct a monastic lathe and stud cell for the black urban mystic.
Tree huggers be advised: no trees were injured in the building of this set.
Whether the “go on living” argument of the black guy prevails or not, remains a mystery.
The pessimism of the professor is clearly a dangerous contagion.
The endangered species of the planet are probably rooting that mankind will ultimately become too intelligent, like the professor, to go on living.
Strange that the adaptive evolutionary process used to ensure our survival; now it leads us to self destruction: perhaps too much cognitive evolution is a bad thing.
The professor seems to have engaged in a life time of confirmation psychology: he has mired himself in a dismal funk: he has read 8000 books, carefully sidestepping the one best seller that might have proved life affirming.
McCarthy, via the professor, alludes to Gibbons and THE DECLINE AND FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE as supporting evidence for his condemnation of Christianity.
Had the Romans been of the professor’s mind, they would have committed suicide and never have known that the barbarians had arrived at the gates.
For additional support for atheism McCarthy invokes the images of the chimneys of Dachau: could a responsive caring creator have allowed the Holocaust?
The Jewish population lost six million innocents; the Christian population certainly had to have lost faith in the existence of a loving, omnipotent interventionalist.
THE SUNSET LIMITED continues through November 6 th.
See it with friends, it is highly provocative: you will want to discuss it afterwards.
For tickets to what will most likely be the best show you will see or have seen in years, surf on over to www.sfplayhouse.org or call 415-677-9596.