By Caridad Svich
By Caryl Churchill
New York Theater Workshop
79 E. 4th St.
Box office: (212) 460-5475
Caryl Churchill's A Number, now
receiving its U.S. premiere at New York Theater Workshop, is a
bracing, quietly disturbing two-hander about, among other weighty
matters, a severely dysfunctional parent-child relationship. Written
with sharpness, insight, and dry comic flair, the play deals with
scientific experimentation, specifically the effect of cloning
on a father (played by Sam Shepard) and his genetically identical,
multiple children (all played by Dallas Roberts). From her first
stage play Owners in 1972, through her collaborative
work with the companies Joint Stock and Monstrous Regiment in
the late 1970s and early 1980s, to more recent theatrical experiments
like The Skriker (1994) and Far Away (2000),
Churchill has always explored the interstitial nature of human
existence. In A Number she offers us a bare world in
which an older, selfish generation (represented by the father)
seeks exoneration for parental neglect by re-making a younger
generation of sons to fulfill its disappointed ambitions and dreams.
Through a series of intensely charged, personal scenes, Churchill
diagrams the de-evolution of a new world order.
Comparison is inevitable with Far Away,
which received its U.S. premiere also at New York Theatre Workshop
(in 2002), and which has a similar elliptical nature and dystopic
world view. Both plays are future-shock texts: prophetic warnings
of a future that is already here. They are also stark, stripped-down
pieces which examine in detail isolated moments in time as characters
try to unravel past mysteries or actions and make order of chaotic
emotional, psychological and environmental circumstances.
While Far Away focused on a nightmarish
landscape beset by war and savagery, A Number keeps its
ruthless eye on the sharp-edged private encounters between figures
bound by blood and trapped in a domestic space seemingly disconnected
from the outside world. A Number is about the consequences
of one man's actions and their devastating effects on a number
of children. But like Far Away, it is driven by mystery.
What motivates Churchill is often what cannot be readily explained--hidden
stories, dreams, spiritual revelation, the metaphysics of evil.
In her best plays she challenges herself and her audience to embrace
through experiments in form (the breakdown of speech in Blue
Heart, the interdependent spiritual and material worlds of
The Skriker, the colliding Victorian and present-day
sexual mores of Cloud Nine, the hard-bitten, fragmented
stories in Fen) the mystery of how and why we do things,
make things, and who we are because of them. Human disturbances
are her métier.
In A Number Churchill shows us
a man named Salter and his three sons: Bernard One, Bernard Two,
and Michael Black. Bernard One is the original, and the others
are copies. The aggressive Bernard One is replicated into the
confused, nervous, guilt-ridden Bernard Two. Both have been raised
by the same father, who was a negligent parent to one and a "better"
parent to the other. Michael Black, a vacuous young man with a
sunny disposition, has been raised by different parents. In five
interrogatory short scenes, the father meets his first two sons
twice and his other son (previously unknown to him) last. A murder
and a suicide figure into the story, as does the father's wish
to undo the past and start again.
The play is built on the rhythms of stop-and-start,
of questions asked, left unanswered, questions about to be asked,
and then denied utterance. The cat-and-mouse game between the
father and his sons is deftly played out with deceptively casual
ease by Shepard and Roberts under James MacDonald's precise and
clear direction. Roberts has the showier assignment and makes
the most of it. To watch him flip from one variation to another
and demonstrate the minute similarities and differences among
the sons is a lesson in acting. Although he has a tendency to
play the audience a bit too much, his quicksilver sense of comic
timing and eloquent body language are a joy to watch. Bernard
Two is all nervous gestures and awkward posture while Bernard
One has a lizard-sleek countenance and a hard, mocking attitude.
Shepard has the tougher task. Salter is
mostly a reactive presence throughout the 65-minute action, and
the audience tends to gauge its response to the sons by his reactions.
Throughout the evening, we shift our perspective about whether
Salter is a "good" father or not based on how he responds to each
son's demands. Speaking in a clipped, dry-as-bone voice, Shepard
keeps Salter on a tight emotional leash for most of the play.
He presents him as a man contrite but not overly so, a man of
ambiguous intentions and selfish motives who nevertheless seems
to be in perfect equilibrium with his past machinations and present
tribulations. Salter is both player and gambler, and he never
lets down his guard.
Late in the play, Churchill crafts a moment
for Salter to break down in contrition and pain, but even then
Shepard chooses to pull away from the moment quietly--play it
down, as it were, rather than play it up in conventional actorly
fashion. It is a wise choice, no doubt fostered by MacDonald,
who shows here as he did earlier this season with his remarkable
staging of Sarah Kane's 4:48 Psychosis, a keen interest
in anti-theatricalization. In A Number, however, a curious
imbalance occurs as Roberts "acts up" and Shepard "acts down."
While they are quite compatible as performers and have a warm
chemistry, Roberts' sometimes hyper-presentational quality is
at odds with Shepard's close-to-the-vest, at-ease-yet-in-command,
representational manner. Of course, the play itself is asking
precisely who are we, who is real, and which performance (among
those we give every day in our public and private lives) is the
reflection of our true self.
I suspect that MacDonald encouraged the
slight un-balance in performance styles to emphasize this questioning.
It is a credit to both performers that they are willing to de-stabilize
the theatrical atmosphere with their work to serve this unique
piece. What sets A Number apart, despite its kinship
with some of Pinter's elliptical moral fables, is its wariness
of the machinations of its own mysteries.
The play operates through the constant
foiling of information, mixing mistrust with the usual comfort
of blood ties. It asks which performance of the self holds the
most currency where reflexivity and dysfunction are the norm.
Churchill creates an interrupted linguistic-topographical space
where the onset of one thought is offset by others--contradictory,
anecdotal, or non-sequential. She toys with the act of revelation
in a subtle manner. Bernard One (Cain) is the violent son seeking
revenge against the meek Bernard Two (Abel), but perhaps Bernard
Two has been equally unhinged all along. Are we to believe in
the criminal act described by Bernard One, the act that breaks
the most direct blood chain, if, after all, Bernard One is almost
always surely lying? What does Salter have to gain from visiting
the third clone, Michael Black, in the last scene? Will he finally
become the good father or at least the image of one that he has
always strived to be? These questions spin in an unanswered loop.
Each revelation is countered by another that disturbs the previous
one in some way, or makes it counterfeit. Yet Salter remains at
the center: the perfect enigma of supposed beneficence. As he
is interrogated by his sons, we are left to question everything
that has passed for truth.