by Jen Krueger
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. ♦