Like a tasty appetizer with a lingering flavor that overshadows the rest of the meal, Caryl Churchill’s "A Number" is a provocative, bite-sized play that seems oddly unfinished.
This first-ever production of a work by English playwright Caryl Churchill at People’s Light in Malvern could interpreted as an straightforward example of how modern science outsources and outstrips human emotions as it leaps and bounds over old verities and ways of living and leaves people struggling to adapt to the arguable benefits that accrue.
Or another possibility is to consider "A Number" as the kind of play English critic James Agate said was built in two stories, a ground floor of realism and a first floor of symbolism. Ostensibly an examination of the ethics and repercussions of human cloning when it was first staged in 2002, its spare yet intense portrayal of the potential human dimensions of this latest ominous advance in science has thematically been nearly buried by another much more extensive cloned family— in this case, dramatic works for film and television about this topic — over the past decade and a half.
Churchill’s work is known worldwide for intense and densely plotted works that make connections between past and present as well as between genders and social classes. Given its brevity (about an hour) it’s necessary that "A Number" be staged as something of a suspenseful mystery as well as an examination of truth, falsehood and human nature under stress so the audience must work diligently to assemble the fragments that make up the plot. It’s a balance that requires precise phrasing by the actors and director Eliza Baldi has worked to keep them (and their verbal duels) at the heart of a virtually nonexistent set.
Salter, a man in late middle age tells his son (Bernard 2) that he is a clone of Salter’s biological first son (Bernard 1) who was created when Bernard 1 was sent away to get treatment for depression after his mother’s death. Salter says he has learned that there is “a number” of genetically identical men cloned from Bernard 1 in a procedure Salter claims was unauthorized decades earlier.
Progressing from the “ground floor” of the first scene (which set designer Andrew Moerdyk seems to have channeled the original 1983 Maxell Cassette commercial), the action moves to the more symbolic level as Salter tries to explain to Bernard, Bernard 2 and a third clone named Michael Black how their existence came about.
When informed consent goes out the window, Salter’s lies about what happened to his wife and his decision about the cloning procedure has dire consequences for father and “sons” alike. Still, there’s a sign of something that might soften and alter the long-term impact of Salter’s actions. But as there’s insufficient data (as a cloner might say) about what led Salter, his wife and Bernard to their perilous choices, what’s left is a need for more explication the playwright has chosen not to provide.
As the clones, Nathan Darrow is allowed much more room for emotional excess than his roles as Edward Meechum in "House of Cards" and Victor Fries/Mr. Freeze on Fox TV’s "Gotham." He takes full advantage of the mixed anger, fear and betrayal Bernard feels to display a talent for quick-change characterization, anguish and even a touch of humor. Broadway and television veteran John Dossett as Salter has the equally demanding task of depicting the father’s duplicity and succeeds completely in a forceful and equally equivocal performance layering bluster over deep guilt about his mistakes in judgment.