A more exhilarating shot of dramatic distillate would be hard to find than Caryl Churchill’s “A Number,” a work even more pared down but arguably more packed with provocative, unsettling ideas than the redoubtable dramatist’s previous play, “Far Away.” While it concocts a dark scenario of genetic experimentation, “A Number” is no near-future nightmare. Instead, it raises thorny questions of a more personal nature — about identity, how personalities are formed, parenting and sibling rivalry, the desire to correct mistakes only to repeat and exacerbate them — all of which reverberate long after the two actors have taken their bows.
While “Far Away” dealt with a world riven by violence and horror, the world of “A Number” becomes almost a vacuum, chillingly narrowed in focus to examine the torment of one man confronted by the inescapable consequences of his actions. And in the New York Theater Workshop production, directed with a deft balance of cool wit and blistering intensity by James Macdonald, that examination feels almost surgical in its uncomfortable closeness.
The sensation is heightened by Eugene Lee’s minimalist design. Only a leather sofa and a standing lamp adorn the reduced stage against a raw brick wall. But Lee has reconstructed the NYTW space with a steeply raked semi-circle of amphitheater-style seating, inspired by a 19th century medical operating theater and lit in part by a single giant surgical lamp directly above the actors.
Following the all-white drywall encasing for “Hedda Gabler,” this willingness to reinvent both the NYTW stage and its auditorium underscores the nonprofit entity’s commendable commitment to creating distinctive theatrical experiences.
The play opens in typically elliptical Churchillian style, as unnerved son Bernard (Dallas Roberts) confronts his widowed father, Salter (Sam Shepard), with the knowledge that he has carbon copies — “a number of them, of us.” While Bernard skates nervously around uneasy questions — is he the prototype or merely a copy? — Salter seems cagey, manifesting surprise at the discovery and repeatedly pondering the possibility of legal recourse against the scientists who took his son’s cells and cloned them without his consent.
When the first Bernard exits, still shaken by the realization that he’s only a fragment of a person and no closer to extracting satisfying answers from his evasive father, he is replaced by a darker, more bluntly accusatory counterpart. Where his predecessor was deferential and wracked with anxiety, the second, physically identical incarnation — revealed to be the original model — bristles with anger and resentment (“my heart, people pay trainers to get it up to this speed”). He relentlessly needles Salter, who squirms with each new shred of information prized out of him.
As reported later in Churchill’s staccato bursts of dialogue, which are chiseled down to the bone, the encounters that happen offstage between the two Bernards parlay mordant humor and horror into a surprising emotional charge. Peeling away layers with her customary teasing intellectual and philosophical dexterity, but declining to reveal the full picture, the playwright gradually gets to the core of Salter’s guilt even as he stammers around it: “It was the best I could do, I wasn’t very, I was, I was always, and it’s a blur to be honest, but it was, I promise you, the best.”
Impersonal as it could be in the wrong hands, the stylized construction here does nothing to dim the raw human drama of a play that peers pitilessly into the murky well of what parents and children want from each other. And while Salter’s actions are painted in a harsh light, his misguided attempt to right his parenting wrongs by starting from scratch is viewed as cause for grief rather than unforgiving judgment.
The final scene, in which Roberts reappears as a third clone — this time easygoing math teacher Michael, who seems amused and delighted to learn he’s part of a series and is disinclined to probe too deeply into the tougher questions — carries a bitterly ironic sting. It also amplifies the poetic pessimism of the play, almost advocating a step away from the realities of a bereft world.
There’s something strangely comforting in the inarticulate wonder with which Michael is transported as he describes his wife’s ears: “Like a Disney elf or little animal ears, and they’re always there, but you know how you suddenly notice and noticing that, I mean the way I love her, felt very, felt what you said, something deep inside.” As Michael reflects on how the identical genes shared by humans, chimpanzees and even lettuce make him feel he belongs, he conveys a happiness unimaginable to Salter.
Complacency through detached simplicity is certainly not Churchill’s point, but the points of this brilliantly terse single hour are as many and as wildly diverse as an audience is willing to extract from it.
Associate director of the Royal Court — where “A Number” was first staged in 2002, directed by Stephen Daldry — Macdonald seems to have a gift for elucidating tricky texts. In his second production on a New York stage this season after Sarah Kane’s “4.48 Psychosis,” the British director keeps Churchill’s tireless ricochet of dialogue taut and lucid, punctuating the five scenes with a soft hum of ambient noise.
While he’s not an actor in the same league as Michael Gambon, who originated the role in London opposite Daniel Craig, Shepard is a magnetic presence, his laconic manner and restless intelligence bringing a singular edge to the role. This unobvious casting marks Shepard’s first time on a New York stage in 30 years. Mumbling at times, in what seems initially like brittle irritability as he dances warily around his culpability, the actor increasingly exposes Salter’s self-recrimination, shame and trapped despair.
A wonderful actor who bounces off Shepard’s more laid-back style with limber vitality, Roberts creates three sharply delineated characters, overhauling his body language and, to a degree, even his features for each of them. Vulnerable and fearful one minute, empowered with rancor the next and finally, just blithely open and unguarded, his endlessly held cry, as the original Bernard, of the single word “Dad” becomes a disturbing, elongated howl of fury.