A Number

Next Theatre Company

In recent years British playwright Caryl Churchill–Harold Pinter’s heir apparent–has moved away from sprawling scripts examining sexual and class politics. Both she and Pinter are writing shorter, but where he’s become more overtly political, Churchill has become less.

Spare in language and rich in ideas, Churchill’s 2002 A Number, now receiving its local premiere from Next Theatre Company, is even more chilling than her 2000 fantasia of global warfare, Far Away, which Next performed two years ago. Just an hour long, A Number deals with cloning–but that’s like saying Glengarry Glen Ross is about real estate. Cloning guides the plot, but Churchill also addresses parental neglect, urban paranoia, and the entirely human but inevitably monstrous desire to erase the past. Salter, a middle-aged Brit, confronts three grown versions of his son, Bernard. Numbed by grief, drugs, and alcohol after his wife’s suicide

(at least that’s his story), Salter gave up Bernard One to a welfare agency. Later Salter decided he wanted to make a fresh start with another child–“one just the same because that seemed to me the most perfect,” he explains to Bernard Two, the person he raised. Trouble is, an unethical (now deceased) doctor at the lab created about 20 other Bernards.

The first four of the play’s five scenes alternate between Bernard Two and Bernard One as each confronts the father. Salter’s initial inclination when he hears about the unauthorized clones is to sue on behalf of Bernard Two. “They’ve damaged your uniqueness, weakened your identity,” he tells the duplicate, unable or unwilling to see he’s guilty of the same thing. Though Bernard Two criticizes his father for calling the other versions “things,” he acknowledges he too would like to think of them as nonhuman. Salter’s first encounter with the child he abandoned is fraught with fear and the son’s recriminations. When Bernard One reminds his father of the nights he lay awake as a child, screaming for a parent who never came, Salter falls into State Department-esque weaseling: “Nobody regrets more than me the completely unforeseen unforeseeable which isn’t my fault.” Bernard One isn’t mollified, and his thirst for vengeance forms the play’s tragic arc. He’s determined to force his father to acknowledge him by doing away with the competition.

Churchill allows a sliver of hope in the last scene of A Number. One of the clones, Michael Black, visits Salter, who probes to find something unique in him, “really specific to you.” Michael’s inventory of the things he loves about his life, from his wife’s ears to the ancient cultures that fascinate him, suggests that looking outward is the key to contentment and peace–something the self-pitying Salter can’t do.

Churchill’s intelligent, poetic chamber piece receives all the careful attention, respect, and love a playwright could wish for her offspring: B.J. Jones’s staging is as economical and revealing as the script’s double- and triple-edged language. As the Bernards gain power over Salter, he moves progressively closer to the floor: in his last scene with Bernard One he’s in a fetal position, his face contorted with loss. Brian Sidney Bembridge’s clever set–a raked circle of metal grating containing only a leather chair and footstool–suggests the isolating cage Salter has created for himself. John Judd’s portrayal of Salter is a marvel of containment verging on mania. And Jay Whittaker as all the clones negotiates the shifts from one to another with astonishing ease. As Bernard Two he bounces on the balls of his feet, edgy but still able to offer crumbs of comfort to his father. As Bernard One he wears a cardigan zipped to his Adam’s apple, watchful as a bird of prey, his voice strangled and menacing. And as the easygoing Michael he’s awkward and eager to please.

Churchill is the rare writer who can be absolutely unsparing in her depictions of the tangled impulses underlying human relationships but who’s filled with compassion for damaged souls. With the exception of one clunky speech about war, A Number contains no wrong notes, no easy pieties. “I did some bad things. I deserve to suffer. I did some better things. I’d like recognition,” Salter declares. Bernard Two quietly answers, “That’s how everyone feels, certainly.”

When: Through 2/26: Thu 7:30 PM, Fri-Sat 8 PM, Sun 2 PM

Where: Next Theatre Company, Noyes Cultural Arts Center, 927 Noyes, Evanston

Price: $12.50-$35

Info: 847-475-1875, ext. 2

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.