Genetics hasn't fared too well in the New York theatre lately. For all the excitement last fall concerning Edward Albee’s twins play, Me, Myself & I, the show couldn’t find much common ground with audiences—we didn’t see ourselves in the mirror being held up; we only saw the playwright (again and again). However, if Ben Brantley is to be believed (and why not?), a previous 2008 production in Princeton was “riotous . . . laugh-out-loud.” Maybe the work still needs more time to be studied, reappraised, and found again, much as A Delicate Balance met mixed reviews in 1966 and ran for only 166 performances (it did win the Pulitzer, though); noted by Vincent Canby during its revival in 1996, the play did better on the rebound.
Such a re-estimation may also be needed for A Number by Caryl Churchill, which is being given a new production at the National Asian American Theatre Company. It’s a short piece, not much more than an hour, which has a distinguished history and, at least here, techno-pop music—Michael Gambon and Daniel Craig starred in the original 2002 London premiere, which won the Evening Standard Award for Best New Play. In 2004, Sam Shepard opened in it in New York. Yet in 2011, the show doesn’t mesh well in the day’s technological upheaval: it’s not old enough to be seen as visionary art and not new enough to have much of an edge. An examination of the effects of cloning on a father and his sons, A Number hasn’t been helped by Octomom in the tabloids or the advent of Twitter, Facebook, WikiLeaks, and live blogging either; some may even feel Ira Levin’s thriller The Boys from Brazil is all they needed to hear about the subject.
A deeper issue might also be the unstated conceit that neither the father nor one of his sons in A Number would go to the press with their story (despite the fact that this dad is interested in making money). Over and over again, people have approached the media with similar cases: the scientific feat of cloning Dolly, the sheep, was within popular memory when A Number first opened; the Raelian cult appeared on the Drudge Report regarding their supposed scientific breakthroughs; we’ve even heard about cow cloning in South Korea. The trend is not toward covering up information here—and if such offspring did live into adulthood, I think it would be very hard to have kept that fact hidden (society would most probably be studying it and replicating it further); in A Number, we don’t get much of a sense of a real, outside world.
At the Studio at Cherry Lane Theatre, Maureen Payne-Hahner, as director, doesn’t seem prepared to drill for a molten core: James Saito and Joel de la Fuente play the father and sons straightforwardly, oddly without much menace, oddly without mining deeply into the subtext. Whether they feel it’s there or not, Churchill’s dialogue is about all they’ve got: interesting, reminiscent of Albee and Pinter, but still talk—her constructional lapses, intentional or not, give the play an empty, anti-controversial feel. It’s a very unphysical play, here seen best as a series of acting exercises, which probably needs to be exploded from the actor’s guts—Saito’s character, Salter, despite the fact that he’s irresponsible as the father, clings to neatness, dignity; de la Fuente, in three roles, shows us different surfaces. Ultimately, without much in the way of stage action or complexity of plot; without taking on the polarizing and in-your-face danger of a story where man is playing God and focusing instead on an easier nature vs. nurture comparison, A Number seems muted; like the clones themselves, unevolved.
© 2011 by Bob Shuman
A NUMBER by Caryl Churchill
Since the arrival of Dolly the sheep, the first mammal to be cloned, in the late-90s, the possibility of human cloning has sparked controversy. In recent years, with advances in genetic engineering, the practical and ethical issues regarding cloning continue to make headlines and incite lively debate. "We've got ninety-nine percent the same genes as any other person. We've got ninety per cent as a chimpanzee. We've got thirty percent the same as lettuce," says Michael Black in A Number. "Does that cheer you up at all? It makes me feel I belong."
With: Joel de la Fuente and James Saito
Czerton Lim (set design)
Kate Brown (sound design)
Alex Bright (lighting design)
Maureen Payne-Hahner (costume design)
Matthew Grayson (graphic design)
Clara Dalzell (stage manager)
William P. Steele (production photos)
Sam Rudy Media Relations (press release)
Directed by Maureen Payne-Hahner
Written by Caryl Churchill
March 12, 2011 – April 3, 2011
Tuesdays – Fridays at 7:30pm
Saturdays at 3:00pm & 7:30pm
Sundays at 2:00pm
Cherry Lane Studio Theatre
38 Commerce Street
Actors appear courtesy of Actors Equity Association. Produced by special arrangement with Samuel French Inc, New York City