A Writer’s Room


All fans of Broad­way will cer­tain­ly be famil­iar with this year’s break­out pro­duc­tion CLEAN, but it may come as a sur­prise to most that first time play­wright Dr. Harold Blue­feld drew inspi­ra­tion for the Tony award-win­ning show from his own life. A research sci­en­tist for phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal con­glom­er­ate Cabot Lab­o­ra­to­ries, Blue­feld’s days used to con­sist of head­ing a team of eight assis­tants in the search for a catch-all cure for immuno­sup­pres­sive dis­eases, a quest audi­ences now asso­ciate with CLEAN’s heart-wrench­ing­ly trag­ic pro­tag­o­nist Daryl. “We were on the brink of a real break­through,” Blue­feld tells me from the oth­er side of an obser­va­tion pane. “Anoth­er week with my team and I’m sure we would’ve made history.”

And make his­to­ry he did. Writ­ing CLEAN entire­ly with­in the con­fines of a clean room locked down in quar­an­tine, Blue­feld’s work went from ini­tial con­cep­tion to open­ing night in a record-break­ing nine­ty days. The play fol­lows research sci­en­tist Daryl as the com­pa­ny he works for suf­fers record loss­es, forc­ing them to fire Daryl’s lab assis­tants and slash his bud­get. Left alone with sub-par equip­ment to con­tin­ue his quest for a med­ical break­through, Daryl is exposed to a virus that eats through a flim­sy ves­sel. Forced into a quar­an­tine to lim­it expo­sure, Daryl’s soli­tude grows as the play pro­gress­es, the last thir­ty min­utes devoid of dia­logue entire­ly to tru­ly under­score his bleak situation.

Blue­feld was quick to point out that CLEAN would­n’t exist if he had­n’t been con­fined to the real clean room on which the play is based. “What else did I have to do?” Blue­feld asks. “With­in the first three days, all my research equip­ment broke. I had to pass the time some­how.” Lucky for Broad­way enthu­si­asts, the com­put­er Blue­feld wrote CLEAN on was part of an inter­nal Cabot Lab­o­ra­to­ries net­work that allowed the com­pa­ny to find Blue­feld’s work and take it out into the world when he could­n’t. And now, win­ner of sev­en Tony awards, CLEAN is one of the most suc­cess­ful Broad­way shows of the decade. When reached for com­ment about the Tony award-win­ning play, a rep­re­sen­ta­tive for Cabot Lab­o­ra­to­ries said, “We were tru­ly sur­prised by what Dr. Blue­feld had writ­ten inside our state-of-the-art facil­i­ty, and hap­py to have played a part in help­ing him achieve this unex­pect­ed suc­cess. We can only imag­ine how much more ful­filled Dr. Blue­feld is now with this whole new world open to him.”

Talk to audi­ence mem­bers as they leave a pro­duc­tion of CLEAN, and near­ly every one will tell you the moment that res­onates with them most is the scene in which Daryl is told he’ll have to be quar­an­tined in his clean room for thir­ty days after the expo­sure. “The pow­er­less­ness, the com­plete inabil­i­ty to affect his sit­u­a­tion, and the sheer iso­la­tion… I wept,” says Mar­sha Ebber­ling, Artis­tic Direc­tor of the Casad­a­ban The­atre. “A play like this only comes around once in a cen­tu­ry. And I cer­tain­ly was­n’t going to let cor­po­rate inter­ests scare me off.” Yet, Ebber­ling was pleas­ant­ly sur­prised at how easy it was to work with Cabot Labs as the pro­duc­er. “Nor­mal­ly I’d work close­ly with the play­wright as well, but Cabot Labs made the very good point that if Blue­feld wrote the play in com­plete seclu­sion, why not let him stay that way? They also assured me Blue­feld was­n’t fussy. After all, when you write some­thing because you’re bored, how pre­cious can you be?”

Nat­u­ral­ly, I want­ed to know what would be next for Blue­feld, and it was this ques­tion that spurred me to speak with him through glass at his clean room at Cabot’s R&D head­quar­ters in Ver­non Hills, Illi­nois. “What’s next? This. This is all that’s next for the rest of my life,” he says, ges­tur­ing to his sur­round­ings. “Being exposed to the virus in here for a sol­id thir­ty days dam­aged my immune sys­tem so heav­i­ly that I can’t sur­vive out­side a ster­ile envi­ron­ment. If they’d let me out imme­di­ate­ly like I’d told them to, I would’ve been fine.” I rec­og­nize this morose procla­ma­tion as very much like some­thing Daryl would say and when I tell Blue­feld this, I can only describe the expres­sion he gives me as enig­mat­ic. Look­ing at the Tony awards lin­ing the ledge on my side of the obser­va­tion pane, this review­er sus­pects the play­wright’s lin­ger­ing con­nec­tion to his pro­tag­o­nist might sig­nal a sequel in the works. ♦