Review: “A Number”

Nathan Burger (left) and William Brown in “A Number.” (Photo by Michael Brosilow)


Where: Writers Theatre, Gillian Theatre,
325 Tudor Court, Glencoe
When: through June 9
Tickets: $35-$80
Phone: 847-242-6000

Theater critic

How would you feel and what would you do if you learned that you had been cloned, and you didn’t know for sure if you were the original or a clone?

That’s the identity crisis Bernard is confronting at the beginning of “A Number,” brilliant British playwright Caryl Churchill’s brain-teasing family drama receiving a taut production in Writers’ intimate Gillian Theatre.

Initially produced in 2002, when the creation of Dolly, the first cloned adult sheep, helped provoke  heated debate over the ethics of human cloning, the two-actor play clocks in at a mere 65 minutes, but in that time Churchill addresses not only cloning itself but also the broader issue of what makes individuals individual, nature (ie. genetics) or nurture. In addition, she sets the play in a dystopian near future and posits intriguing questions about the responsibilities and possibilities of parenting. Specifically, she asks: If a person gets it wrong the first time, is it moral to try again with an identical offspring, and what are the potential consequences?

Churchill’s language can be elliptical, even enigmatic, but one of director Robin Witt’s virtues is that she makes what is going on quite clear. Confused and distraught, Bernard (Nate Burger) seeks an explanation from his father, Salter (William Brown), but what he gets—at least at first—is a series of lies and evasions.

I don’t want to give away too much, but what Bernard has found out at the outset is that, without his knowledge or permission, or apparently Salter’s, a crazy old scientist has made at least 19 clones of him. On being told, Salter is indignant and wants to sue the hospital; Bernard is mostly upset and craves reassurance that he is Salter’s real, beloved son.

Still skeptical, Bernard is only partly appeased, and Salter finally admits that, yes, there was a Bernard before him, but he died, and so did Bernard’s mother, in a car accident.

As the second of the five scenes unfolds, however, we learn that little of this is true. Bernard is different, too: angry and menacing, filled with a desire for revenge at having been wronged.

Salter, distant yet increasingly distressed as the play progresses, alternates between justifying his behavior and expressing remorse. Brown captures his chilly disposition and mounting despair extremely well, but the evening really belongs to Burger, who makes his offspring totally distinct personalities despite their identical appearance. There’s even a good deal of humor in the post-tragedy final scene, during which Bernard mentions a number he finds comforting: the 30 percent of our DNA we share with a head of lettuce.

Burger gets some assistance from Mieka van der Ploeg’s simple character-defining costumes, while Courtney O’Neill’s scenic design of a sparsely furnished living room featuring Salter’s leather chair and a couch with a cowhide slung across it is deliberately devoid of personal accouterments. It could be a waiting room in an upscale doctor’s office, but even that would have magazines. Brandon Wardell’s lighting and Thomas Dixon’s sound design add to the pervasive discomfort.

“A Number” is essentially an intellectual puzzle or an existential mystery, but if you stop to really think about it, Churchill has made it devastatingly human—with an ironic, arguably hopeful twist at the end.