Reviewed by Judy Richter
"A Number" is not only the title of Caryl Churchill's 2002 play, it's also the opening line in the one-act drama being staged by American Conservatory Theater. Tautly staged by Anna D. Shapiro and clocking in at slightly under an hour, "A Number" focuses on an older man, now a widower, Salter (Bill Smitrovich), who was displeased with his young son, so sent him off to some kind of care after having him cloned for a more satisfactory son. The latter son, now a young man, Bernard (Josh Charles), has just discovered that there are other clones, "a number," he says.
In the next scene, the original son, also named Bernard and also played by Charles, shows up and confronts Salter about the past. Unlike the other, more polished Bernard, this one is belligerent, angry. Before the play ends, yet another clone, Michael (also Charles), shows up, but he's quite content with his life.
The story emerges in a disjointed fashion, forcing the audience to listen carefully, especially since Salter tends to change his story from time to time. Moreover, some dialogue overlaps, forcing even harder listening. The issue seems to be not so much the dangers of human cloning as it is the parental impulse and the strong influence of nurture rather than nature. No matter, for it's hard for the audience to care about any of the characters.
One of the more intriguing aspects of this production is the set by David Korins. It's Salter's office, for he's a scientist, perhaps a professor. However, it's elevated and enclosed on all four sides by a black box whose edges angle in toward the set. This distancing perspective is akin to a giant movie, TV or -- more likely -- computer screen. Between scenes, lights flash behind scrims on the sides (design by Russell H. Champa), and synthesized sounds (design by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen) are heard. Costumes are by Callie Floor.
Churchill has always been known as a playwright who eschews conventional forms. Certainly she does that here, and not entirely successfully despite the first-rate designs, direction and cast.