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A CurtainUp Review
A Number

Sam Shepard
Sam Shepard
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Different father and son, different director and designers -- same startling play about a son who confronts his father with the fact that he has genetically identical counterparts and is merely one of "a number." Though it's been four years since New York Theatre Workshop imported Caryl Churchill's Far Away, its nightmarish shock effect still lingers in the memory. With her latest play luring Sam Shepard to perform before an audience for the first time in three decades, the New York production of Churchill's latest play has been accompanied by a buzz as intense as the ominous buzzing sound between visits to Shepard's Salter by the three sons (Dallas Roberts) who might just encounter a number of others with similar genetic components.

Shepard, an actor who's the very image of the weather-beaten American Westerner of few words, has a distinctly different persona from the British Michael Gambon who originally played the father who is faced with the aftermath of his replacing one son with a genetically engineered copy. He fits the American version of the enigmatic father who must in the course of the mere hour it takes for this disturbing drama to unfold show himself to be unfeeling, defensive and wracked by pain and guilt. He is convincingly understated, but it's Dallas Roberts' showcase performance that brings home the key point of this Beckettian drama: that science might have reached a point where it can physically clone human beings, but that though such look-alike cloned humans, their personalities are still subject to nurture as much as nature. Thus Roberts' two Bernards (the 40-year old "original" and the 35-year-old clone) and Michael Black (one of a possible number of others) wear different jackets but otherwise are three distinctly and scarily different characters. A primal scream "D-a-a-a-d" by one of the Bernards is nothing short of amazing.

Since Lizzie Loveridge's review (after this review and the current production notes), gives the plot details, I'll confine the rest of my comments to director James MacDonald and scenic designer Eugene Lee vision for the New York production. To paraphrase her final question as to whether A Number is a worthy vehicle for this assembled talent (my response on that score is a definite "yes"), I would ask "is the total stage reconfiguration MacDonald and Lee have wrought worth the effort and expense?" My answer here comes closer to Lizzie's "almost."

Inspired by a photograph of a 19th Century medical operating theater, Lee has rearranged the regular proscenium stage seating so that seats (nailed to the floor folding chairs) now form a steeply inclined circle that has the audience looking down on a small, spare and jarringly lit playing area. This environment creates a fitting medical mystery aura and serves as an interesting context for this story -- particularly so as you come to realize that what you're witnessing is a timeless familial drama of sibling rivalry and paternal responsibility told through the lens of futuristic scientific experiments. So much for the "almost."

The trouble with this coup-de-theatre staging is that the seats are uncomfortable. Given the play's short duration that's a minor complaint. More importantly, this set-up undercuts Mr. Shepard's performance. Unless you're sitting in the first three rows, those steeply raked seats will focus distractingly on the top of Shepard's head. With the director encouraging him to look down or put his head in his hands whenever an emotional reaction is called for, his face literally disappears at the most critical moments.

A Number, is a powerful enough play not to need any shock and awe staging conceits. Like Far Away, it's a disturbing rather than entertaining theatrical experience that will have you mulling over its implications long after Shepard and Roberts have taken their well-deserved bows.

P. S. A caveat: Arrive on time. Late arrivals won't be seated once the play starts-- nor will anyone leaving at any point be re-admitted.

A Number

Written by Caryl Churchill
Directed by James MacDonald

Starring: Dallas Roberts and Sam Shepard.
Set Design: Eugene Lee Costume Design: Gabriel Berry
Lighting Design: Edward Pierce
Sound Design: Darron L. West
Running time: 65 minutes, no intermission
New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th Street (2nd Avenue/ Bowery) 212/239-6200
From 10/11/04 to 1/16/05; opening 12/07/04.
Tues & Sun @ 7:00PM, Wed thru Sat @ 8:00PM, Sat & Sun @ 2:00PM.
Tickets: $65.00.
Extended to 2/16/05 -- but Shepard leaves 1/16 as scheduled. Arliss Howard is the replacement Salter.

--Premiere of A Number in London, reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge
We've got ninety-nine per cent the same genes as any other person. We've got ninety per cent the same as a chimpanzee. We've got thirty per cent the same as a lettuce.
-- Michael Black
Caryl Churchill's new play brings to mind experiments made in the early 1900s. Behavioural scientists would take orphaned identical twins and bring them up, one in an orphanage, one in a loving home and compare the results. These experiments on genetically identical individuals were soon banned as unethical.

The Royal Court assembled their dream team: the acting prowess of Sir Michael Gambon and Daniel Craig, who plays Paul Newman's son in The Road to Perdition, the director Stephen Daldry and the writer Caryl Churchill. Director and author are repeating the partnership forged in Far Away.

A Number is about the three sons of Salter, Michael Gambon's character. All three are played by Daniel Craig. There is Bernard One, aged forty, the original. He is aggressive, violent and has nightmares. Bernard Two, who is thirty five years old, exhibits no aggression but worries about being "just a copy". Michael Black, also thirty five, is from the same "batch" as Bernard Two but has been brought up by different parents. Bernard One was neglected by his father after the death of his mother and was taken into care at his father's request. Salter is not a good father to Bernard One and, unusually in parenting, he gets a chance to try again with Bernard Two but is unaware that Bernard Two is one of "a number". Salter redeems himself with the raising of the second child but like Cain and Abel, jealousy will intervene.

Churchill's writing is full of interrupted and unfinished sentences. It is all the more credit to the cast and the director that they deliver the prose in a completely natural and believable way. It's likely to be a bit confusing, unless you are prepared for there to be three characters played by Daniel Craig, as each clone looks identical and wears identical clothing. This is a frightening brave new world of scientific experiment with little thought as to the effect on the cloned children and their progenitor.

Michael Gambon is one of the most watchable actors on the London stage. A large presence with a softly murmuring voice. His character must show himself sometimes trying to wriggle out of his responsibility, sometimes to be reassuring. His reaction to his son's revelation of the secret batch is to talk about litigation and hundreds of thousands in damages rather than the psychological impact on the son. Gambon conveys all this ambivalence and gives us an insight into some of the characteristics his sons may have inherited from him. He probes for differences between the sons, curious as to how disparate they are and is by turns tender, contrite, anxious. In order to meet Michael Black for the first time, he slowly puts on a tie, the formal wear reflecting the seriousness of the meeting.

Daniel Craig has the interesting but difficult triple role of three sons who look similar but who are very different. As directed by Daldry, it works, and baby face Craig conveys the essence of each man, one dutiful, one criminal and one detached.

Is A Number a worthy vehicle for this assembled talent? Almost.

to Curtain Up's reviews of Caryl Churchill's plays
Far Away
The Skriker
Top Girls

A Number

Written by Caryl Churchill
Directed by Stephen Daldry

Starring: Michael Gambon and Daniel Craig
Designer: Ian McNeil
Lighting Designer: Rick Fisher
Sound Design: Ian Dickinson
Running time: One hour with no interval
Box Office: 020 7565 5000
Booking to 16th November 2002
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 28th September 2002 performance at the Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, The Royal Court Theatre, Sloane Square, London SW1 (Tube Station: Sloane Square)
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