Written By Caryl Churchill
Directed by Maureen Payne-Hahner
I, me, you, he, we, them—Caryl Churchill's stichomythic, 60 minute search for the self, A Number, comes to life at the Cherry Lane Studio Theatre (through April 3). In a semblance of a foyer with a set of dark-wood doors that don't open, a tiled floor, a chair but otherwise a void, hang frosted glass partitions with colored horizontal stripes, giving the impression of suspended chromosome slides and gas dispersions—you know, chemistry shit. Brian Eno ambiance (because Music for Airports could have just as easily been called "Music for Laboratories") overlaid with harsh industrial beats and a mechanized science lecture that the audience chatters through anyway, sets us sometime in the not-so-distant future.
Through some combination of parental irresponsibility and genetic malpractice, Bernard Two (Joel de la Fuente) finds himself confronting his father Salter (James Saito) with the fact that he may have upwards of 20 siblings, all carbon copies of himself. After an accident and a mental breakdown, Bernard's father found himself wifeless and childless. When he came to, he wanted his same son back—new, but same. But are they really the same? The only sons we see on stage are clones. Are they the same if their genes are? They are; they're not, but they are, and not quite. Bernard himself might not even be the he that he thinks he is, and he will have to confront the others to find out.
Churchill wrote the play back when Dolly, the first-ever cloned sheep, was still making headlines. The controversy has quieted, and today little progress has been made. Europeans are only now trying to decide if they're going to be able to eat these clones. And though there have been some notable advances in stem cell cloning (and some people tend to make mountains out of molehills; or in this case, humans out of unfertilized embryos), we're about as far away from full-blown, sci-fi style human cloning as we were a decade ago.
The play nevertheless manages to get these ethical issues on stage. Through Maureen Payne-Hahner's direction of this National Asian-American Theatre Company production, this tightly packed meditation on identity and isolation unfolds in a set of four rather stagnant stage images. Churchill draws on a familiar angst-ridden existentialist duo, but fragments her two actors into four characters. James Saito as Salter, the dowdy, often sympathetic, at times even comically evasive father, provides a stable counterpoint to Joel de la Fuente's shifting, temperamental performance, triple-cast as son and clones. Fuente's drastic change in emotional intensity from scene to scene (because some clones turn out to be better adjusted than others) provides the trajectory that drives the play forward. As the three clone-sons, he engages in virtually motionless and somewhat rushed dialogue with Saito. The two could have teased out a little more physicality, maybe even a little more humor from the punctuation-free text. They tend to breeze through without always letting the thought settle, leaving the mood a bit sterile. If Churchill's words are, by nature, powerful, what they lack in this case is a little bit of nurture. That may come about naturally as this production gets further into its run.
(photo credit: William P. Steele)