Caryl Churchill Spins the Numbers Game
by Barry David Horwitz
Behind a low, white circular barrier, suggesting a petri dish, an anxious son confronts his worried father. In her shocking play “A Number,” Caryl Churchill uses three cloned sons to make us think about the present threat of identity loss. She also catapults us into the future, to consider how Tech may be muddling our identities.
Churchill is up to her poetic trickery as the sons extract different origin stories from their harassed father. What’s her ominous play about? Do we fear cloning? Is Churchill warning us about pernicious science? Is the father complicit in the cloning of a number of sons…maybe 20 or more?
Paul Vincent O’Connor does a superb job as Salter, a befuddled old guy who has lost control of his family. Salter has spawned many sons because, he claims, the doctors stole the cells of his first deceased son. Father and son intone poetic dialogue about finding “a number” of them. We must piece together the chilling, tragic story of Salter’s random family.
Many potential plots stream before us, but Churchill refuses to let one story stand still. She creates a dream world inhabited by sons who must question their origin. Versatile O’Malley plays all three sons, transforming himself amazingly from anxious to aggressive to accepting.
Son #1, Bernard, 35, is an annoyingly compliant preppie who dresses neatly and bends his head low with humility and anxiety. He slinks around the stage nervously. He subtly attacks his father who never told the truth about the many sons. Adroitly, this Bernard pulls the truth out of Dad, number by number, with brilliant, rapid-fire, poetic dialogue.
Bernard is afraid of losing his identity, afraid of meeting himself in the street, afraid of being afraid. There’s no way to assure Son #1 of his first-born rights. O’Malley seduces us into sympathy with this Bernard.
Son #2, Bernard, age 40 (also O’Malley), tears up his father, the office, and the fabric of the story. He must be on some potent Adderall because he attacks relentlessly. This Bernard is angry, mercurial, dangerous. He twists Salter’s words every which way, keeping us in awe of his next move.
Finally, Salter confronts Son #3, Michael Black, 35, a school teacher. Michael differs from his brothers, taking a new angle on the question of multiple identities.
Barbara Damashek has slyly and wittily directed her two fluid actors to engage but not engage, to expose but hide. It’s a masterpiece of mysterious conspiracies. Caryl Churchill’s script leaves a lot for us to imagine. “A Number” lives in the sci-fi future and we feel like clones at a family reunion.
That low circular wall keeps the actors in the petri dish of experimentation, and we want to reach out to them. We may feel a little queasy about the clones, but Caryl Churchill succeeds in helping us think more humanely about the future.
“A Number” by Caryl Churchill, directed Barbara Damashek, at Aurora Theatre, Berkeley, California, through Sunday, May 6, 2018. Info: auroratheatre.org
Cast: Paul Vincent O’Connor and Joseph Patrick O’Malley.