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Theater Review: A Number

For decades, dire fictional fantasies have swirled around the issue of cloning. Critics ranging from author Aldous Huxley to the Republican Party Platform Committee have conjured nightmarish scenarios tapping into our deepest fears about man playing God.

Today reproductive medicine is indeed a Brave New World. Every few months, it seems, comes a fresh Franken-headline from the scientific frontier. Sheep cloned. Sixty- something woman gives birth. In-vitro embryos genetically sorted prior to implantation. Technology is moving faster than ethicists can address the accompanying dilemmas.

While mainstream researchers categorically reject the pursuit of human cloning, it remains a tantalizing, and terrifying, idea that seems just over the scientific horizon. English playwright Caryl Churchill tackles the consequences of creating perfect copies of imperfect humans in her terse, thought-provoking 2002 play, A Number. In the current production at Northern Stage, a talented two-man cast creates an atmosphere layered with tension and emotion as a father and his sons grapple with moral dilemmas of cloning.

The one-act play unfolds as a series of conversations between Salter, the father, and three incarnations of his son Bernard. All the scenes take place in the father's living room. To denote scene changes, the lights dim and background sounds babble while the actor playing the sons steps briefly offstage to change costume.

A conventional plot summary would spoil the show for anyone planning to go; Churchill reveals her storyline in shocking bits and bursts, and their impact builds over the course of the play. Around these plot points ricochets a dizzying set of Big Questions about parenting, individuality and identity. The central issue is the age-old debate about nature versus nurture. What shapes who we are -- our genes or our environment?

The real story of how and why the sons came to be emerges slowly. In order to cast himself in the most favorable light to each son, Salter constructs sandcastles of lies around tiny grains of truth. He admits to commissioning one clone to replace a son he lost -- although his definition of "loss" differs from the dictionary's -- and has raised the second Bernard lovingly.

Near the beginning of the play, this son learns that he is a clone, and both he and Salter discover that the doctor apparently made "a number" of other copies. Salter tries to deflect his responsibility and redirect his son's anger towards the "mad scientist," who is conveniently dead. In what feels like a very American twist, Salter dangles the possibility of cashing in on a big lawsuit, perhaps against the hospital. The clones "have been stolen from you and you should get your rights," the father goads his son. "They've damaged your uniqueness, weakened your identity . . . how dare they?"

Salter is clearly a deeply flawed dad, and his wish for a second chance at parenting is at the heart of the story. By cloning Bernard, Salter started over with a clean slate, fulfilling a dark fantasy of many exasperated parents. Although the three versions of his offspring we meet are genetically identical, their personalities diverge wildly. On the nature-versus-nurture debate, Churchill comes down firmly on the side of nurture. How the sons have been raised determines who they are -- their genetic code is virtually meaningless.

Playing all the sons, Patrick Jones needn't have bothered changing shirts between scenes -- each clone had a distinctive way of talking, moving and interacting with Salter. Jones relished the differences without hamming them up. With bright and forgiving eyes, he made it clear that the Bernard who was raised by Salter was eager to believe his dad's story, even as it took disturbing turns. He played another clone as a feckless geek, tone-deaf to Salter's desperate attempts to draw him out.

The most magnetic Bernard was the menacing one, and Jones conveyed the character with convincing details: He lowered his voice and flattened his affect; he thrust his fists into his pants pockets while stalking the stage; he folded a gum wrapper methodically while sprawled territorially across an armchair. His eyes smoldered with resentment.

As Salter, Richard Davidson also had to play multiple characters even though he technically had just one role. The father is an entirely different person to each of the sons: beloved by one, despised by another and unknown to a third. Davidson manifested the distinct dads in his mannerisms. With the adored son, he kept close physical proximity, speaking to Bernard intimately while making direct eye contact, even when Salter was unraveling an uncomfortable lie. For the angry son, Davidson's body language was standoffish: eyes cast aside, arms defiantly crossed. Although details of his behavior changed, Davidson also maintained consistent threads to Salter's character: how this king of rationalization uses flattery and deception to justify his actions to himself and his sons.

Churchill's writing is clipped and staccato, consisting largely of interrupted thoughts and incomplete sentences. On one level this is naturalistic -- none of us actually speaks in the flowing iambs of a Shakespearean soliloquy. But it means the audience must work to fill in the blanks, and the dialogue between Jones and Davidson passed at a consistently snappy pace that sometimes made it hard to process the content. It also meant the play was over in just an hour. Director Peter Hackett might have varied the pacing at certain points, and a few breathing spaces would have helped.

Hackett's decision to present A Number in the round, with the audience seated on all four sides, also created some challenges. The bare-bones living room, where all the action took place, was set on a square of pale hardwood floor laid over the black stage. Two armchairs were placed at opposite corners, each flanked by a small side table.

Much of the dialogue took place with one actor seated in a chair, and even when both actors were standing, the director had blocked a lot of their movement along the diagonals of the square. This meant that some audience members spent considerable time looking at the back of an actor's head.

Another questionable choice was the lower-middle-class, faux Victorian style of scenic designer Robert F. Wolin's lean set. Because the clones are already adults at the time of the play -- Jones makes the sons twentysomething; Churchill specifies an age range of 35 to 40 -- A Number must be taking place well into the future. While Jetsons-style sets and costumes might distract from the play's central concerns, the choice of a backward-looking art design is curious.

Nonetheless, on balance Churchill's play is well served by Northern Stage's production, and especially by the performances of Jones and Davidson. And despite its short length, A Number leaves you with a long evening of issues to discuss over a post-show latte.

We may not be cloning humans just yet, but Ted Williams' head sits in a cryo-freezer -- to create a Red Sox super-slugger for the 2047 World Series? A Maryland fertility doctor "economized" on artificial insemination supplies and knocked up dozens of patients with his own seed -- Will two half-siblings unknowingly meet and mate? These issues are certainly more intriguing than the old who-to-toss-from-the-lifeboat exercises in an eighth-grade ethics class. Churchill contributes cunningly to the debate.

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