“Most people are happy, I read in the paper,” says Bernard 1 (Daniel Craig) early on in “A Number,” but Caryl Churchill’s characters aren’t “most people,” any more than the singularly visionary and adventurous Churchill is most playwrights. Now 64, Churchill has been going her own tantalizing and (in thematic terms) often troubling way now for more than 30 years, and it’s fair to say “A Number” ranks among her most mesmerically disturbing works. That the new one looks likely to figure among her more commercial, as well, is a function of both the latest play’s length (one short, sharp hour) and its cast size (two actors playing four characters in all). But don’t be deceived by the apparent user-friendliness of an evening that — in the ever-empathic hands of Stephen Daldry and two blazing actors, Michael Gambon and Daniel Craig — could not be better served: The more one mulls over the number of meanings to “A Number,” the more mournful a point it seems to make as regards a world shot through with grief and loss that comes not accidentally to rest on the final word, “sorry.”
Churchill’s “Top Girls” 20 years ago concluded with comparable impact on the lone word “frightening,” which is one way of describing the psychic landscape the dramatist is traversing from a male perspective this time around. (Whereas “Top Girls” dealt with mothers and daughters, “A Number” focuses exclusively on fathers and sons.) And although its ostensible subject is cloning, “A Number” no more solely addresses scientific experimentation than, say, Michael Frayn’s matchingly bleak “Benefactors” offers an architectural manifesto. Instead, Churchill’s conceit allows her to refract issues of personality across three versions of the same person — all brilliantly embodied by Craig — in a parade of selves that leaves the boys’ grasping and guilt-obsessed father, Gambon’s Salter, literally creased over with despair.
The play is a series of duologues across five scenes, beginning with Salter and the son designated Bernard (or B) 2. What happened to Bernard 1? He died in a car crash age 4 — or so we are led to believe until that older child appears, angrier and more belligerent than his younger self, to face off against his father in the second scene. B1, we learn, was the original child from whom as many as 20 copies have been cloned, among them the mild-mannered if rather dim math teacher, Michael, whom Salter encounters toward the end. What’s more, B1 burns with an authentic and inextinguishable fury that turns out to be the (offstage) catalyst of a plot in which questions of nature vs. nurture eventually pale confronted with mankind’s distinguishing characteristic: human comfort and need.
Written in Churchill’s by-now characteristic half-sentences and ellipses, “A Number” is both an intricate puzzle — notice the way in which a word like “things” gets beaten down at the outset and then resurrected to haunting effect later on — and almost shockingly direct, its emotions as close to the surface as, for instance, the volatile mood swings in “King Lear,” which this play rather unexpectedly recalls. Confronted with three versions of one child, Salter faces a reckoning in triplicate that leads him toward a terrible truth. Perhaps happiness, as offered up by the jokey, accommodating Michael, only comes with the unexamined life. Dig more deeply, as Salter keeps trying to get Michael to do, and that way madness lies.
Churchill is too clever not to allow for comedy along the way, especially in the artful hands of a director whose track record with this writer (starting with his little-seen Court preem during his directorship of the theater of Churchill’s “This Is a Chair”) has been unfaltering all along. It might be possible in other productions for “A Number” to disappear in a cloud of cosmic dust, its various mysteries — after all, what if Salter is merely imagining these multiple sons in his own heaving mind? — never coming to land. Not here. Working on a platformed stage from designer Ian MacNeil that is as bare as his career-making set for “An Inspector Calls” was cobbled and complex, Daldry virtually spits his two players toward the audience from the opening moment, as if the pair were walking some existential catwalk that becomes, for Craig anyway, a treadmill of damaged selves. (All credit, too, to Rick Fisher’s lighting, which seems to swallow up Craig in between his every entrance.)
Having generated considerable heat of late for his perf as Paul Newman’s son in “Road to Perdition,” Craig channels a similar fury into his thuggish B1. That he can change personalities on a dime, all the while attired in the same T-shirt and jeans, intriguingly complicates Churchill’s inquiry into the components of behavior: Suppose that all we are doing every moment is acting (albeit rarely as well as Craig).
The younger performer’s unassuming bravura is partnered with predictably formidable force by his senior colleague, with Gambon showing a baleful softness I’ve rarely seen in him before. His Salter extracts what humor can be found from a scenario that at times leaves him demanding litigation — when in doubt, sue! _ while seeming himself to shift personalities via the simple act of putting on a tie.
“Are you happy?” Salter asks Michael insistently and to little result, the question acquiring more and more urgency the less son No. 3 seems to grasp its import. And as the lights fade, Gambon’s face can be seen to flicker in recognition of the implicit answer — the only fully lived life is also the most painful one.