Caryl Churchill's A Numberis a play that's superficially about cloning and only slightly less superficially about the nature of identity very slightly, for this piece is not subtle with its ruminations. The play has been hailed as "an astonishing event" by the London Evening Standard, was said by the Daily Telegraph to contain "more drama, and more ideas, than most writers manage in a dozen full-length works," and was referred to by the New York Times as "a gripping dramatic consideration" of identity "in a world where people can be cloned."
That's all from the press release, and if you don't believe that kind of hype, good for you. Hyperbolic sound bites from people you don't know mean nothing at all. But note with cautious optimism the subject matter here and realize that we're sailing into the weird open waters of science fiction, perhaps the most critically maligned of all literary genres. Usually, the introduction of science into the art world results in nothing but sour-milk bellyaching and derision, presumably because scientists are not sufficiently concerned with, you know, the eternal verities to satisfy the sensibilities of the world's artists and aesthetes. It's an antipathy that used to drive Carl Sagan bugshit, and if you catch Kurt Vonnegut on an especially windy day, he'll be happy to lambaste the art world at length for its self-important dumbness.
Science can open up all kinds of new doors into art's greatest themes, and a sensitive soul like Churchill can guide an audience through those doors with a grace and skill that make the investigation of old ideas seem new and novel. So it is with the Promethean Theatre's take on A Number, an inspired working of a play that deserves every accolade it's received.
In A Number, we are introduced to four characters played by two actors. Three of those characters are portrayed by Matthew Chapman. We meet him first as "B2," the dutiful and hopelessly weak-kneed son of Salter (Kevin Reilley) who has just discovered that he is, in fact, one of any number of clones ("B2" is the way his name appears in the evening's program; the character's actual name is never disclosed). Then Chapman reappears as the dark and hopelessly mangled personality "B1," an abandoned boy whose rage at the cosmos manifests as seething anger that seems ready to explode into violence at the tiniest provocation, real or imagined. Lastly, Chapman appears as Michael Black, a man who never realized he had a father named Salter and who is positively delighted at the prospect of having been cloned. He thinks it's "exciting" to be "a part of science."
Why has Mr. Chapman been cloned so many times? It's because Salter has bought into the same delusion that opponents of cloning, and of genetic science in general, have been laboring under for years: that what a person is must be connected, in some special and implacable way, to who that person is. Having forever lost one son because of some unspecified mélange of paternal fuck-ups, he felt the need to start anew with the same raw materials. The drama in A Number is the playing-out of the consequences of Salter's decision consequences that have nothing to do with science and everything to do with the way human beings labor to become themselves and how tenaciously they'll cling to whatever identity they finally stumble into.
A Number starts out light, with Salter, at a loss for words and comically out of his depth, struggling to provide some comfort to B2, who's understandably aghast that he has an unknown number of genetic twins roaming about the planet. His concerns are amusing: He wonders if, when encountering one of them on the street, it will be anything "like hearing yourself on an answering machine, and you think oh! Is that how I...?"
In the early scenes especially, sentences trail off and are taken up by new ones. Salter cuts off son cuts off Salter cuts off son, and nobody's precisely sure what he's supposed to be saying. It's funny to watch, both because conversational awkwardness is naturally amusing and because both Salter and B2 are played as painfully polite Englishmen always an enjoyable affectation. (It should be noted that Reilley and Chapman deploy the only convincing English accents to appear in South Florida theater in recent memory for less successful attempts, see The Lion in Winter, I Have Before Me a Remarkable Document Given to Me by a Young Lady From Rwanda, and Betrayal). Their confusion nicely mirrors the big question mark that hovers over the play's action: What makes me me? Nature? Nurture? Decisions? Happenstance? The central issue is delineated in the first scene, when B2 gives his verdict on having been cloned: "I'm fine with it I just... don't know what it is I'm fine with."
From there, the tone gets darker, the ideas get heavier, and the performances all put on weight. Reilley starts off dotty and becomes monstrous, a creature of blind, callous need and infantile loneliness. As Chapman cycles through his characters, they become abject proofs or rebuttals of the very ideas delineated in the scripted lines. By the time B2 ruminates on the nature of free will, it's just a semantics game: Nurture becomes nature, and nobody goes against nature. When we finally meet the happy clone, Michael Black, we understand that he is happy not because of his genetics but because happiness is a by-product of the life that's been thrust upon him. The way he and Salter fumble through their meeting, failing to understand each other, is a social manifestation of the mysterious gulf that exists between success and failure, the gulf that makes the happy wonder why the depressed don't cheer up and that makes the depressed wonder what the hell the happy have to smile about. Salter tries to figure out what makes this fellow so special and grills him: What makes you unique? Black answers: I like blue socks. No, no what makes you really unique? Well, I like banana ice cream. No! Go deeper! Well, I hate war. No!
It's interesting to note, as these questions spin out and the play wends to a close, how all of Salter's questions are about "what" instead of "why." It's hard not to wonder if, had this not been the case, he would have needed a second son at all.
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