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A Number at A.C.T.

The Uniqueness of Being(s)

If you stop to closely consider all the elements that constitute an individual -- core beliefs, relationships, ideals, a fate largely dictated by the convergence of social and economic conditions -- then the concept of uniqueness becomes a bit far-fetched. Caryl Churchill examines all of the above to brilliant effect in her play "A Number", which dissects the archetypal father-son relationship under the heavily subdued lights of genetic engineering.

Churchill is one of the most lauded female playwrights in contemporary theatre. Indeed, her plays -- wry illustrations of the nexus between gender and class -- can be aptly described as feminist pieces. However, what sets "A Number" apart from Churchill's past works is not merely its idiosyncratic subject matter, but also the fact that it's completely devoid of female characters, and is essentially a play about the construction of masculine identity through the father-son relationship.

At the center of the play is a fellow named Salter (Broadway veteran Bill Smitrovich), the father of a young man who has been cloned into 20 supposedly exact copies. Salter meets separately with the original, Bernard, and two clones (all played by TV and film actor Josh Charles). The strained relationship between father and son(s) is exacerbated by the first two Bernards' discovery that there are "a number" of precise replicas of them out in the world. "You mean I'm not the original, I'm only a copy!" Bernard II, a clone, fumes miserably at a monosyllabic, pitifully aloof Salter.

The major misconception audiences will have before going into the theatre is that this is a play about genetic engineering or the ethical ramifications of human cloning, when actually, it is about the futility, guilt, and myriad misunderstandings which surround the father-son relationship. Salter, who is both distant yet painfully aware of his wrongdoing, initially assuages Bernard I and II (who have independently discovered the clones) with well-meaning fibs about the project, assuring each that he is the original. However, the truth is quickly revealed as both sons prod Salter further.

As Charles exits and re-enters with a different Bernard, we are struck by the diversity (and the ultimate sameness) of the three, which, of course, elicits the age-old question of "nature vs. nurture." Charles' Bernard II is disbelieving yet gentle, his portrayal quickly giving way to cold resignation. (In reference to the original Bernard, who has begun stalking him, Bernard II forlornly tells Salter, "We both hate you, but my hate is completely different from his.")

Charles' portrayal of the original Bernard, a smoldering, volatile character who alternates between salty amusement and manic fury, is far more calculating in his interrogation of Salter (who we learn decided to clone Bernard at the age of four, two years after his mother's untimely death), bombarding his father with acidic inquiries about his questionable parenting. The enmity between Salter and the original Bernard is countered in Salter's final meeting with Michael, one of the 19 clones who are meeting him for the first time. Michael is essentially a stranger to his father's undisclosed motivations and the triangulated discord between Salter and the two Bernards; therefore, his reaction to the whole situation is perhaps the only unique one in the play. "Actually, I find it quite delightful," he gushes sincerely to Salter. Of course, Michael isn't privy to the personal ramifications of Salter's decision, and at this point, irrevocable tragedy has already sunk in.

Fans of Harold Pinter will appreciate Churchill's maddeningly elliptical script (under the brilliant direction of Anna Shapiro), which looks at how much or how little information we can extract from language. The five scenes are brisk and esoteric, full of slight cross-sections of each character's history. The text is full of incomplete sentences, interrupted thoughts, and unrevealed information that lies somewhere on the peripheries of the action, like the 19 other Bernards who are "talking, loving, living, and fucking" somewhere out there in the world. Additionally, the emphasis on the technical procedure of genetic engineering, as well as the setting and time period, remain shrouded in mystery, as if Churchill is purposely creating a realm in which the audience is only partially cognizant of the back story.

David Korins' set is as towering and distant as the play is searing and personal. A disconcertingly conventional wood-paneled office sits high atop the stage, peppered tongue-in-cheek with wallpaper featuring identical ducks lined up in a number of rows. The box-like containment of the scene lends the play a nearly cinematic feel, as if we are watching the action through the once-removed medium of television, which further creates a duality between what we are seeing and what we are feeling. Light designer Russell H. Champa complements the disorientation with his flashes of darkness, which set in before the start of each new scene (with a new Bernard), rounded out by eerie ambient sounds that approximate the sci-fi anxiety of genetic engineering.

If the play is a jibe at the concept of unique identities, the uneasy relationship between Salter and the three Bernards also shatters the idea of unique relationships. But even at the end, Salter clings desperately to the concept of uniqueness. "Tell me something deep and personal about yourself," Salter exhorts Michael. Michael, however, cannot answer, for he is the type of person who finds comfort in the fact that humans share 33 percent of their DNA with lettuce -- he is aware that our similarities are often more interesting than our differences.

The comedic nuances, awkwardness, and apprehension of all the characters are conveyed beautifully by Smitrovich and Charles, whose roles are mitigated by the silent realization that uniqueness isn't the thing that keeps relationships intact, rather, it's simple understanding and acceptance, even of our limited performances as father and son. The play is not a redemptive one, but the final scene -- with its abrupt ending -- certainly offers redemption as a possibility.

Runs through May 28th
at American Conservatory Theater's Geary Theater
Tickets are $16-76