LONDON — What a difference a monosyllable makes, not least when a single protracted howl serves as an emblem of the production as a whole. The moment comes midway through the New York Theater Workshop production of “A Number,” where Dallas Roberts, playing one of multiple sons of Sam Shepard’s phlegmatic, indrawn Salter, lets rip with the lone word “dad.”
As the young American thesp exhales the “a,” his outburst slicing the air until it resembles an infant’s cry, Caryl Churchill’s deeply mysterious — and, one could argue, quintessentially English play — all of a sudden seems newly, profoundly domestic. It’s a lamentation incorporating any number of fault lines between parents and children that, in some ways, is what the American theatrical canon is demonstrably about. (“The Glass Menagerie’s” Tom Wingfield, whom Roberts will play on Broadway later this season opposite Shepard’s partner, Jessica Lange, has surely known similar bursts of fury, in his case directed toward mom, not dad.)
The effect Off Broadway is to refocus, and shrewdly so for American consumption, a play that, on the Royal Court mainstage two-plus years ago, was more electrifying but also somewhat more enigmatic. In Stephen Daldry’s scintillating London staging, Michael Gambon and the brilliant Daniel Craig occupied a nearly bare stage that was engulfed by an inky darkness. It’s as if the actors were specimens adrift in some cosmos that was chilling because it really wasn’t human, the void at the periphery of the stage a Beckettian black hole into which such concepts as happiness had long ago heaved themselves.
No more: James Macdonald’s New York premiere of the same play has reconfigured the Workshop playing space (reportedly to the tune of $100,000) so that the audience is bearing down on the performers, making the American cast, in contrast to their London forbears, sometimes seem smaller than life. But that diminution serves Roberts well as and when he does explode: Macdonald knows the value of contrast, so he makes every change in volume and movement count.
That, too, is important, since one could hardly ask for two more different actors, and acting styles, than those of Gambon and Shepard. Gambon has such an extraordinary vocal instrument that he can’t help but still the house by dint of sheer size, whereas Shepard works in reverse, playing it so cool and close to the chest that spectators have to lean forward even to hear him. (The actor-playwright has just been replaced for the remainder of the extended run by Arliss Howard.)
For the majority of the 65-minute play, Shepard appears more or less fixed to the leather sofa that takes up most of designer Eugene Lee’s stage, often rocking silently back and forth, head in his hands. So it comes as a shock in the fourth of the play’s five scenes when he even bothers to slide down the sofa. Such motion, one feels, isn’t undertaken lightly; it’s as if the psychic agitation has become too great for his body to bear.
Gambon’s reckoning in London was on an altogether larger, grander scale, as one might expect from a classicist who has, after all, played Lear, a play to which “A Number” could be seen as a miniaturist response. (Indeed, what are Lear’s three daughters but the umbilical cord in triplicate, just as Salter’s three sons — one original and two clones — are in Churchill’s text?)
Roberts doesn’t land the last of those boys, Michael, whose apparent blessing and curse is to be living an unexamined life, and it’s bizarre that the play’s telling final word (“sorry”) should elicit New York laughs. But maybe the sea-change also is the result of a previously unknowable text that has been made to seem more familiar.
Whatever the reason for the shift in affect, one can admire the New York “Number” while noting the absence of the danger felt in London — and knowing, as with any great play, that there are a number of further interpretations of “A Number” still to come.