A CurtainUp Review
In Caryl Churchill’s A Number, Clockwork Theatre’s latest offering, on Theatre Row, Salter, a somewhat reserved widower whose wife committed suicide many years ago for unspecified reasons, acts on what most of us would consider a fleeting, unacceptable impulse. When he gets sick of the annoying behavior of Bernard 1, he abandons his child, keeps some of his DNA and clones him in the hope of getting a superior version in Bernard 2. All goes well until Bernard 2 discovers the treachery.
All of the above is the back story, revealed with tantalizing slowness in Bernard 2’s initial confrontation with his father. What’s more, it seems that the miracles of modern medicine have produced not just one clone of Bernard 1 but a whole host of look-alikes, scattered throughout the world like numbered prints. Something Bernard 2 finds intolerable.
In subsequent scenes, Salter is reunited with the belligerent Bernard 1, who has somehow found his way back home after all these years. If Bernard 2 is understanding and surprisingly amiable, Bernard 1 is angry and vicious. He plots revenge against the father who rejected him and the brother/clone who has taken his place.
Eventually, Salter also meets another Bernard clone, Michael Black, a teacher, husband and father who, thankfully, has his own name. Salter tries unsuccessfully to make a personal connection with the diffident but obliging Michael, something he was unwilling to do with Bernard 1 and, one suspects, unable to do with Bernard 2.
Sean Marrinan is the bearded, vaguely academic Salter. Despite elegant dialogue and Marrinan’s meticulous performance, Salter’s confusion, muted anger and feeble self-justifications never coalesce into what one might call a personality. In fact, throughout the play, he remains more of a soulless entity than any of the clones.
Jay Rohloff plays Bernard 1 and 2, as well as Michael Black. He inhabits the three very different characters with impressive ease. Rohloff was most recently seen as Elliot in Clockwork Theatre’s Apartment 3A, where he was equally effective.
A Number unfolds on a minimal set that implies an ultra-modern living room. A large round window punctuates the scenes when it becomes a godlike blue light and then the microscopic images of the cloning process. It’s a nice touch, well handled by director Beverly Brumm.
Caryl Churchill is one of the most respected playwrights in contemporary theater. She is a serious writer who is known for making important statements on politics, feminism and social issues. A Number, which comments on identity, scientific possibilities, parenthood and human imperfection, is nothing if not serious.
Drama, however, is not an intellectual exercise. At some point, the play has to go beyond the idea to the story. And despite Marrinan and Rohloff’s best efforts to humanize Churchill’s characters, neither Salter nor any of the clones becomes a personality that would be interesting without the overriding issues that are at the center of the drama.
What happened to Bernard 1 after his father got rid of him? How did Bernard 2 find out he was a clone? Is it possible that no one noticed the age discrepancies when Bernard 2 first appeared? For those who like a playwright to connect the dots, A Number can be frustrating indeed.
But even for more forgiving members of the audience, the underdeveloped nature of the characters may be troublesome. Was Salter’s wife anything more than an unhappy woman? Why is Salter incapable of real love? What kind of relationship did Bernard 2 have with his father before the young man discovered he was a clone?
While the play fails to engage emotionally, it poses some fascinating questions and certainly appeals to the intellect. For some, this may be enough.
Editor's Note: This production follows some very high profile, and generally much praised productions, especially the London production starring Michael Gambon and the New York Theatre Workshop production (for which the entire theater was reconfigured with Sam Shepard. To read reviews of those productions go here