Theater Review: New Rep’s “A Number” Doesn’t Add Up

The laughter in the production serves a useful purpose: It distract us from the serious narrative problems in Caryl Churchill’s script.

A Number by Caryl Churchill. Directed by Clay Hopper. Presented by New Repertory Theatre at the Arsenal Center For the Arts, Watertown, MA, through November 1.

Cloning Around. Dale Place and Nael Nacer in the New Repertory Theatre production of "A Number." Photo: Andrew Brilliant / Brilliant Pictures.

Cloning Around. Dale Place and Nael Nacer in the New Repertory Theatre production of “A Number.” Photo: Andrew Brilliant / Brilliant Pictures.

By Ian Thal

For decades, Bernard Salter (Nael Nacer) has been told by his father (Dale Place) that his mother had died in childbirth, only to learn that he had been fed a lie. During a hospital visit, he is informed that he is just one of “a number” of clones—perhaps 20—made for reasons that are entirely unclear. When confronted with this revelation, the elder Salter concedes that the truth is that Bernard is actually the clone of Salter’s previous son, also named Bernard, who, at the age of four, was killed in an automobile accident along with his mother. Salter didn’t know about the other 19 clones; he suggests they sue for damages against Bernard’s unique identity.

Of course, Salter is lying, and, in the next scene, the original Bernard shows up at his door. Another story is wrenched from Salter: The original Bernard was given up to foster care at the age of four. After his wife threw herself under the wheels of a train, Salter, an alcoholic, decided that he couldn’t cope with (or was possibly annoyed by) the challenges of fatherhood. Once Salter cleaned up his act, he wasn’t interested in getting his son back; instead, he paid a scientist to create a clone. Meanwhile, the original grew into a thuggish psychopath who is cruel to animals, hates the father who abandoned him, and despises his replacement.

The story focuses on Salter (he is the only character present in all of the play’s five scenes), who is forced to confess one lie after another—to the point that it isn’t clear if he’s still telling whoppers in the final scene, when he requests the truth from Michael Black, yet another clone. The play seems to stumble when faced with where its premises are leading: the possibility that our individuality is not about what is in our genes but in our deepest loves and hatreds.

Science fiction is not about the future but the present, as the saying goes. When Caryl Churchill began work on A Number, she was responding to the 1997 announcement that scientists at Edinburgh’s Roslin Institute had successfully cloned a sheep the previous year. By the time the play premiered in 2002, the ruminant, named Dolly (after Dolly Parton—the sheep was cloned from a cell scraped from the original’s mammary gland), was a year away from being euthanized due to advanced lung cancer and severe arthritis.

Stories about clones, like those about twins separated at birth, or magical doppelgängers, have long been used to frame questions of identity and difference, of nature versus nurture, and what it means to be an individual. The popularity of the conspiracy thriller Orphan Black (co-produced by BBC America and the Canadian Space channel and recently renewed for a fourth season), in which Tatiana Maslany plays well over a dozen clones, suggests that the public is still fascinated by the issue. So it’s not surprising that A Number is being revived. But the script doesn’t add up to as much as it could have.

A Number was created over the course of improvisational workshops with actors. Consequently, Churchill’s script, which by all appearances was culled from transcripts, is so filled with stammers, incomplete sentences, and repetitions that the dialogue never becomes memorable—which makes Place’s and Nacer’s ability to both commit the words to memory and sculpt characters from them more admirable—but it also means that the play, which is already short (clocking in at about an hour) often feels like it could have easily been half as long without losing any of its dramatic or thematic impact.

The fact is that the play’s form and method of composition hamstrings Churchill’s ability to explore the issues that cloning presents: Not once are the up to 20 surrogate mothers who carried the cloned fetuses to term mentioned. (This is how animal cloning is accomplished.) Were they compensated fairly? Were they undergoing fertility treatment and then deceived into thinking that they were carrying their own genetic offspring or that of their partners? From whom were the eggs that hosted Bernard’s DNA harvested? What of the clones’ adoptive families? Good science fiction asks these and other sticky questions; it’s embarrassing that a feminist writer does not—but then, that might have required the presence of a third actor. Contemporary theater thrives on the cheap—two-handers are de rigueur. If only arts budgets could be cloned…

In addition, Churchill does not commit to any concrete specificity in terms of time and place. A Number seems to take place in world where, if human cloning is not unprecedented, at least secretly making a large batch is. Yet the hospital staff casually tells Bernard the truth. Salter talks about hiring a solicitor, but the inevitable legal and ethical questions raised by the unusual situation aren’t even asked (that might require yet another actor). Likewise, there’s no journalist around to make either probing or banal inquiries. And the motivation of the unnamed scientist who created the clones is never explored: Was he conducting a highly unethical experiment meant to answer questions of nature versus nurture? Attempting to profit from black market baby-clones? Or was he just your stock mad scientist with dreams of taking over the world with a clone army? No answer is supplied: The scientist is the play’s deus ex machina.

Director Clay Hopper and his cast wisely choose to milk the broken syntax for some dark comedy (which was not done in the 2012 Whistler in the Dark production of the script). The laughter serves a useful purpose: It distracts us from the serious narrative problems in Churchill’s script.

Dale Place is excellent, dramatizing Salter’s journey as he is forced to consider that the original Bernard’s psychopathy may be rooted in his father’s flawed nature rather than in social inequities. But then again, the happiness of the almost banally content Michael Black could be accounted for by his being raised by someone else. Nael Nacer’s flexibility is on display as he uses a wide repertoire of accents and mannerisms to distinguish his characters, rendering each one immediately recognizable: Bernard the clone speaks in a middle-class Estuary English that resembles his dad’s, while the original Bernard gesticulates in order to make up for his barely educated lower-class grunting. Michael Black is a school teacher with a relaxed Northern English accent.

Cristina Todesco’s pristine scenic design—almost antiseptic black and white surfaces and massive columns of fluorescent lights—suggests the way corporate power often likes to brand itself as the future. And if this is Salter’s home then the look may put lie to his claim of not being rich. Lighting designer Marry Ellen Stebbins’s use of a harsh light indicates that something is amiss. Phil Schroeder’s sound design and score are a particular triumph; he nimbly incorporates ambient sound effects into his enigmatic melodies in a manner that recalls the pioneering work of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop (fans of Delia Derbyshire and Dick Mills will be pleased).

In the end, however well performed, A Number disappoints, not only because of its sheer lack of ambition, but because of its lazy indifference to the literary possibilities of science fiction. Novelists such as Philip K. Dick, Stanislaw Lem, and Kazuo Ishiguro (or Grant Morrison in his graphic novel The Filth) address many of the same thorny issues of authenticity, individuality, and identity with greater philosophical and psychological depth because they are boldly imaginative—even transgressive.

Ian Thal is a playwright, performer, and theater educator specializing in mime, commedia dell’arte, and puppetry, and has been known to act on Boston area stages from time to time, sometimes with Teatro delle Maschere. He has performed his one-man show, Arlecchino Am Ravenous, in numerous venues in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. One of his as-of-yet unproduced full-length plays was picketed by a Hamas supporter during a staged reading. He is looking for a home for his latest play, The Conversos of Venice, which is a thematic deconstruction of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Formerly the community editor at The Jewish Advocate, he blogs irregularly at the unimaginatively entitled The Journals of Ian Thal, and writes the “Nothing But Trouble” column for The Clyde Fitch Report.

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