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All Cloned Up

Father And Son Spar In the Age Of Genetic Engineering

By John Barry | Posted 3/22/2006

A Number

By Caryl Churchill

Through April 23 at Everyman Theatre.

In this age of pandemics and end times, the nightmare of unregulated human cloning feels almost refreshingly innocuous. Caryl Churchill’s A Number makes you wonder what the big deal is. We’re all basically born in the same petri dish anyway. In fact, as one of her characters—clones—at the end of the play suggests, we share 30 percent of our genetic makeup with cabbages. So why not revel in that instead of trying to locate our personality in that tiny sliver of our DNA that we don’t share with others?

There’s an existential crisis lurking beneath the surface here, but A Number feels more like a brainteaser than a conventional drama. There’s no real plot, and no fatal flaws; in fact, there are no personalities. It ends where it begins—in a cleverly crafted scenario where characters can multiply at will irrespective of human agency. Churchill doesn’t want to come up with rounded characters; she just wants to make us a little uncomfortable with ourselves. And there she succeeds.

The unsettling effect is enhanced in this production by Daniel Ettinger’s hall-of-mirrors set design. Over the years, Ettinger has worked wonders with the Everyman’s small confines, and he’s done it again here. Two walls of gold-tinted mirrors are bent at an angle to create—depending on where you’re sitting—three or four reflections of each character onstage. So as the lights go up on the two isolated figures, father and son, they’re visible from the front and from behind. Pick your favorite angle.

And picking angles is what this play is about. In a torturous back and forth, Churchill takes the father-son conflict into uncharted territory, as a young Bernard (Kyle Prue) discovers the dark secret behind his conception. His father—the squirming, evasive Salter (Bill Hamlin)—is forced to admit that he was cloned from an earlier son, whom he abandoned after he started to turn into a whining, howling brat. That son still exists. To make matters worse, Bernard finds that his genetic material was stolen and used as the basis for “a number” of other children—about 20. Bernard, understandably, wonders whether he exists to begin with. His father can’t really help him on that score.

It’s an interesting premise, but it’s tough to mine as a play. The characters in the play are cloned from the same cells. The father isn’t sure what exactly makes them his sons to begin with. And the stage itself is sort of a surreal, floating eye of the mind, which doesn’t tell the audience where to focus. The burden of trying to squeeze drama into this somewhat sterile landscape falls squarely on the actors.

As Bernard, Prue has to slither into the skins of three characters with identical DNAs, which makes his task particularly difficult. As he switches between playing the tormented, likable No. 2 to the violent, unpredictable, thuggish No. 1, Prue doesn’t just change roles. He also has to show us that, at least by some definition, these very different personalities are linked. Prue has to tread that line carefully, without resorting to the refuge that different accents would provide.

Hamlin, meanwhile, gives the play its core emotional center. His character is a tight-lipped dad who hasn’t really figured out how to communicate with any of his offspring. By the story’s end, his original quandary—how to tell his son where he came from—has morphed into a much more paralyzing encounter with the idea of personality and individuality. Salter is, if anything, increasingly helpless, but he appears to be trying desperately, from all possible angles, to get some insight into his own legacy.

Despite the actors’ best efforts, though, there’s a stasis to the play that doesn’t quite get overcome. That may be Churchill’s doing. A Number is built around a situation, not characters, and at points this dramatic tightrope is being negotiated a little too carefully. At times, though, the characters are so stumped by their situation that they’re left sitting in their chairs trying to figure things out for themselves. Once they get past that point, things pick up. In the final scene, the effect is gripping. And with a tragicomic ending, as the father confronts a third clone, the production finishes on a captivating note. But in a 70 minute play, 20 minutes is a long wait for anything to get in gear.

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