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Dallas Roberts and Sam Shepard in "A Number," by Caryl Churchill, New York Theater Workshop
Multiple Selves
By Caridad Svich

A Number
By Caryl Churchill
New York Theater Workshop
79 E. 4th St.
Box office: (212) 460-5475



Caryl Churchill's A Number, now receiving its U.S. premiere at New York Theater Workshop, is a bracing, quietly disturbing two-hander about, among other weighty matters, a severely dysfunctional parent-child relationship. Written with sharpness, insight, and dry comic flair, the play deals with scientific experimentation, specifically the effect of cloning on a father (played by Sam Shepard) and his genetically identical, multiple children (all played by Dallas Roberts). From her first stage play Owners in 1972, through her collaborative work with the companies Joint Stock and Monstrous Regiment in the late 1970s and early 1980s, to more recent theatrical experiments like The Skriker (1994) and Far Away (2000), Churchill has always explored the interstitial nature of human existence. In A Number she offers us a bare world in which an older, selfish generation (represented by the father) seeks exoneration for parental neglect by re-making a younger generation of sons to fulfill its disappointed ambitions and dreams. Through a series of intensely charged, personal scenes, Churchill diagrams the de-evolution of a new world order.

Comparison is inevitable with Far Away, which received its U.S. premiere also at New York Theatre Workshop (in 2002), and which has a similar elliptical nature and dystopic world view. Both plays are future-shock texts: prophetic warnings of a future that is already here. They are also stark, stripped-down pieces which examine in detail isolated moments in time as characters try to unravel past mysteries or actions and make order of chaotic emotional, psychological and environmental circumstances.

While Far Away focused on a nightmarish landscape beset by war and savagery, A Number keeps its ruthless eye on the sharp-edged private encounters between figures bound by blood and trapped in a domestic space seemingly disconnected from the outside world. A Number is about the consequences of one man's actions and their devastating effects on a number of children. But like Far Away, it is driven by mystery. What motivates Churchill is often what cannot be readily explained--hidden stories, dreams, spiritual revelation, the metaphysics of evil. In her best plays she challenges herself and her audience to embrace through experiments in form (the breakdown of speech in Blue Heart, the interdependent spiritual and material worlds of The Skriker, the colliding Victorian and present-day sexual mores of Cloud Nine, the hard-bitten, fragmented stories in Fen) the mystery of how and why we do things, make things, and who we are because of them. Human disturbances are her métier.

In A Number Churchill shows us a man named Salter and his three sons: Bernard One, Bernard Two, and Michael Black. Bernard One is the original, and the others are copies. The aggressive Bernard One is replicated into the confused, nervous, guilt-ridden Bernard Two. Both have been raised by the same father, who was a negligent parent to one and a "better" parent to the other. Michael Black, a vacuous young man with a sunny disposition, has been raised by different parents. In five interrogatory short scenes, the father meets his first two sons twice and his other son (previously unknown to him) last. A murder and a suicide figure into the story, as does the father's wish to undo the past and start again.

The play is built on the rhythms of stop-and-start, of questions asked, left unanswered, questions about to be asked, and then denied utterance. The cat-and-mouse game between the father and his sons is deftly played out with deceptively casual ease by Shepard and Roberts under James MacDonald's precise and clear direction. Roberts has the showier assignment and makes the most of it. To watch him flip from one variation to another and demonstrate the minute similarities and differences among the sons is a lesson in acting. Although he has a tendency to play the audience a bit too much, his quicksilver sense of comic timing and eloquent body language are a joy to watch. Bernard Two is all nervous gestures and awkward posture while Bernard One has a lizard-sleek countenance and a hard, mocking attitude.

Shepard has the tougher task. Salter is mostly a reactive presence throughout the 65-minute action, and the audience tends to gauge its response to the sons by his reactions. Throughout the evening, we shift our perspective about whether Salter is a "good" father or not based on how he responds to each son's demands. Speaking in a clipped, dry-as-bone voice, Shepard keeps Salter on a tight emotional leash for most of the play. He presents him as a man contrite but not overly so, a man of ambiguous intentions and selfish motives who nevertheless seems to be in perfect equilibrium with his past machinations and present tribulations. Salter is both player and gambler, and he never lets down his guard.

Late in the play, Churchill crafts a moment for Salter to break down in contrition and pain, but even then Shepard chooses to pull away from the moment quietly--play it down, as it were, rather than play it up in conventional actorly fashion. It is a wise choice, no doubt fostered by MacDonald, who shows here as he did earlier this season with his remarkable staging of Sarah Kane's 4:48 Psychosis, a keen interest in anti-theatricalization. In A Number, however, a curious imbalance occurs as Roberts "acts up" and Shepard "acts down." While they are quite compatible as performers and have a warm chemistry, Roberts' sometimes hyper-presentational quality is at odds with Shepard's close-to-the-vest, at-ease-yet-in-command, representational manner. Of course, the play itself is asking precisely who are we, who is real, and which performance (among those we give every day in our public and private lives) is the reflection of our true self.

I suspect that MacDonald encouraged the slight un-balance in performance styles to emphasize this questioning. It is a credit to both performers that they are willing to de-stabilize the theatrical atmosphere with their work to serve this unique piece. What sets A Number apart, despite its kinship with some of Pinter's elliptical moral fables, is its wariness of the machinations of its own mysteries.

The play operates through the constant foiling of information, mixing mistrust with the usual comfort of blood ties. It asks which performance of the self holds the most currency where reflexivity and dysfunction are the norm. Churchill creates an interrupted linguistic-topographical space where the onset of one thought is offset by others--contradictory, anecdotal, or non-sequential. She toys with the act of revelation in a subtle manner. Bernard One (Cain) is the violent son seeking revenge against the meek Bernard Two (Abel), but perhaps Bernard Two has been equally unhinged all along. Are we to believe in the criminal act described by Bernard One, the act that breaks the most direct blood chain, if, after all, Bernard One is almost always surely lying? What does Salter have to gain from visiting the third clone, Michael Black, in the last scene? Will he finally become the good father or at least the image of one that he has always strived to be? These questions spin in an unanswered loop. Each revelation is countered by another that disturbs the previous one in some way, or makes it counterfeit. Yet Salter remains at the center: the perfect enigma of supposed beneficence. As he is interrogated by his sons, we are left to question everything that has passed for truth.


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