Reviewed by Will Stackman
Predictably, exactly what happens in "A Number," a recent Caryl Churchill play which per usual premiered at the Royal Court, then played NYC last season starring Sam Shepherd, is open for debate. The initial premise is that Salter, played here by IRNE winner Steve McConnell, had a child cloned--unless that son is actually a copy of the father. Three such identical siblings appear during the course of this sixty-five minute piece, but we're told there may be twenty or so more. Salter claims to be outraged by this duplication, but one might wonder, since he's not rich, whether or not he got one child to keep in turn for allowing the others to exist as part of some Orwellian experiment. The boys, now grown into young men, are all played by Lewis D. Wheeler, who appeared at the Lyric as The Gentleman Caller last season, and in both Publick Theatre shows, "Arcadia" and "Comedy of Errors" this past summer. He manages to distinguish between the three, Bernard, Bernard, and Michael, through simple costume changes, different footwear, careful accents, and unique physical presentations. The result is an intriguing puzzle with no real answer. However, award-winning director Spiro Veloudous has found a well-nigh perfect pair to present this elusive piece.
The first Bernard, who sounds most like his British father, is a passive sort, without survival skills, and seems a bit bewildered by his circumstances. The second has lived on the London streets, and is clearly more to his father's liking. How and when the second came to replace the first is part of the mystery, and its denouement is rather unexpected. The bulk of the play shifts from dialogues between the father and one of his sons, with McConnell's stolid Brit as an unreliable narrator, telling each young man what that child wants to here. But then as a coda, Michael Black, a third clone appears, a shallow Midwesterner wearing loafers, impervious to his father's wiles. Another playwright might have made this the middle of the play, but Churchill chooses to leave the future of these characters, and the rest of the clones, to the imagination of the audience.
McConnell, head of the BosCon acting program uses his native British accent and persona to provide a groundbase for Wheeler's showier interpretations. Much of what the audience takes from this "A Number," which like most contemporary British science fiction has a feel of alternate reality, comes from how the younger actor presents and differentiates his three roles. It's not hard to imagine another pair of actors achieving rather different results, also effective, from their efforts.
The subtle abstract set was created by the Lyric's production manager, Skip Curtis, with a suggestion of a surprising image in the spattered backdrop. Four pieces of modernist furniture placed within a circle on the floor complete the staging. Effective lighting, carefully varied between scenes, is the work of the Lyric's master electrician, Robert Cordella. The pair designed last season's "Fully Committed." There's a subtle implication of a fight ring to the result. Original music and sound design is by Norton Awardee Dewey Dellay, who also worked on "Fully Committed." All these technical efforts provide an elegant surround for this deceptively simple work. Veloudous has once again achieved a memorable result on Lyric's open thrust stage. It will be interesting see what future productions make of this script. "A Number" should be turning up again on rep stages across the country.