The living room exposed to the audience in the Clockwork Theatre’s production of Caryl Churchill’s A Number looks unremarkable and familiar. Yet this symbol of family unity, of similarity across households, is re-imagined as a bizarre and frightening landscape. In this room, a father and son whose relationship is eerily abnormal communicate with clipped dialogue that sets the audience on edge. This is no kitchen-sink drama. Churchill’s play transports us to a sexless, amoral future in which science has perverted traditional family dynamics, along with clear definitions of self. This nightmare scenario introduces major philosophical queries that cannot be answered by the hopeless creatures asking them. In this hopeless world, Churchill’s sad characters find nothing that unites them and nothing that sets them apart. In focusing on an emotionless world, the play itself is too cold to be satisfying theater. A Number focuses on the fallout after a grieving father tries to replace his mysteriously absent biological son (or fill the void following his wife’s death) by cloning him. Rather than alleviate his sadness, this act brings terrible unforeseen consequences that deprive this man of a sense of worth, self, or happiness. With profound confusion he tries to speak to his son and the clones to understand what he has done, but every query further baffles all parties. In the end, there is only the hollow satisfaction of one clone that, in spite of all odds and without justification, is happy.
Unfortunately, Churchill’s fascinating philosophical questions do not make up for her inaccessible characters, particularly the stolid father, played without emotion by Sean Marrinan. The strange process of cloning has rendered this man powerless and useless. Rather than accept responsibility, he tosses around vague pronouns—“they were only to make one of you.” Though he is pathetic, he is impossible to sympathize with, which makes the role difficult. Perhaps Marrinan is wise to avoid bursts of emotion, but his stiffness is distracting. Furthermore, it is unfortunate that Marrinan and his co-star, Jay Rohloff (playing all versions of the “son”), never achieve a comfortable rhythm with Churchill’s fragmented dialogue. Hopefully with more productions behind them this style will come more naturally.
Whereas the father is reserved and cold, his sons are his opposite in several ironic ways. Appearing in three variations, the children haunt his life in ways that mirror the ghosts of Christmases past, similarly illuminating his transgressions. Though they are genetically identical, their nurturing, or lack thereof, has produced vastly different characters, each of which’s individuality is brought to energetic life by Rohloff.
The son in the first scenes, Bernard 2, is a thoughtful creature who is intrigued and frightened by his origins and unafraid to ask difficult questions. His curiosity brings the audience up to speed and even jogs the fuzzy memory of his father. But there is a profound sense of loss in their conversations: though tied by blood, the two have no past.
Without revealing too much of the plot, suffice it to say that the appearance of Bernard 1, a bitter and violent child, introduces higher stakes into the drama. However, in this dull and lacking world, his crime does not stir passion or change. After Bernard 1 succeeds in what he might consider revenge, the disturbing questions persist. No scores are settled, no burdens lifted. Even with the arrival of a third clone, a happy-go-lucky simpleton, the humor is dark and short-lived. There seems to be no hope for this “family.”
Churchill’s preoccupation with perversions of the familiar is perfectly rendered in Larry Laslo’s set. In spite of its gentle mauve tones, the vast space—and the inability of the father and son to fill it—contributes to the sense that this is a cold reality. The audience stares into the living room like scientists watching an experiment. The clever set also features a window that showcases projections of an embryo’s development. The egg in the sky inspires questions of origin and underscores the father’s detachment. This ominous orb comes out only when the lights go down and attracts the attention of the father in a way that his crying son did not.
Though A Number addresses and explores fascinating questions of self, identity, and responsibility, the play often has the feel of a formal experiment. It is as though Churchill is so dedicated to showing the coldness of this future world that she forgets the live audience in the present, sacrificing dramatic tension in the name of form and ideology. It can be somewhat trying to watch a dramatization of a philosophical debate, but the issues she raises are interesting and provide much to consider upon leaving the theater. The problem is that while you’re in the theater, the story is not all that riveting, and it’s characters, perhaps by necessity, frustratingly forgettable.