New York City Theater
New York Theatre Workshop
The questions are both profound and enigmatic. In "A Number," Caryl Churchill's challenging, jolting 65-minute, intermissionless work at the New York Theatre Workshop, the playwright tackles nothing less than the very essentials of life, our identities, from their beginnings in nature to their development by nurture.
Her prism is Salter, a father who, 30 years ago, decided to clone a substitute for his incorrigible four-year-old son whom he claims had died but whom he had sent to an institution. Later, the lab took it upon itself to make 19 more duplicates. Now Salter must deal with legal ramifications, to which end he has decided to meet as many clones as possible.
Churchill doesn't dwell on legalities or, even ethics. The evening comes down to personality: How is it formed? What are its origins? Is love instinctive or learned? Through Bernard One (the original), Bernard Two (the Abel to Number One's Cain) and Michael, younger, well-adjusted, happy (because brought up by a different family?), Salter becomes aware of loss and gain.
The play is Pinteresque: pauses, overlapping dialogue, elliptical, unfinished thoughts. On Eugene Lee's bare set (floor lamp, couch, door, distressed brick wall), as moodily lit by Edward Pierce, the characters become specimens, an effect enhanced by having the audience peer down at them from an amphitheatre arrangement reminiscent of a medical college.
Dallas Roberts plays all three sons, changing in and out of Gabriel Berry's precise costumes. The delineations are perfect, from Bernard One's terrifying anger to Bernard's Two's agitation to Michael's cheerful calm.
Perhaps because of James MacDonald's restrained direction, Sam Shepard's Salter rarely shows emotion, which has the effect of holding the audience at a distance. His eyes glaze over, he appears stricken, but it's all understated. Despite this, "A Number" is a rich work that gets under the skin.
-- David Rosenberg
Dec. 8, 2004