`A Number' meets fraction of potential

Theater Review


It's sometimes said that everyone has a double. But what if you found out you also had a triple, or a quadruple? Or, for that matter, what if there were 20 of you?

These are among the questions raised by British playwright Caryl Churchill's elliptical drama A Number, receiving its Baltimore premiere at Everyman Theatre.

In A Number, a grown son discovers that he has at least 20 clones. Then he discovers that he is a clone -- that his father had his original son cloned, then raised the clone instead.

The father tells some lies up front, so it's impossible to know exactly what's what. And the dialogue is filled with so many pauses and unfinished sentences and repetitions, everything begins to sound alike. It's a little like watching a not-so-distant science fiction tale told by Harold Pinter, or a Brit lit version of My Three Sons with a sinister scientific twist.

What it's not like is the wonderfully fanciful flights of imagination taken by Churchill in such previous plays as Cloud Nine, which boldly shifts centuries and settings to examine sexual politics, or Top Girls, which brings together real and fictitious women from various eras to comment on feminism and power.

And, as provocative as the themes and subject matter of A Number may be, Everyman's production feels a lot longer than its one-hour running time. When the performance reaches its abrupt ending, instead of mulling over the ethics of cloning or issues of identity or nature vs. nurture, you're more likely to question why the play as a whole -- and director Vincent M. Lancisi's production in particular -- is so unsatisfying.

Much of the problem appears to be Bill Hamlin's largely one-note portrayal of the father. Hamlin portrays this flawed patriarch as a man perpetually stunned. Sometimes he's stunned because he's exasperated. Sometimes he's stunned because he's shocked. And sometimes he's stunned because he's frightened. But almost always, he seems to have his mouth hanging open and his eyes wide with disbelief.

Fortunately, the production's only other cast member, Kyle Prue, delivers a considerably more varied performance. Prue plays three different sons -- one original and two clones. But even without the minimal costume changes -- the original wears a black leather jacket and knit cap, the clones wear a gray pullover and a striped shirt, respectively -- the actor's body language and vocal delivery would make it easy to distinguish these three.

The original is anger incarnate. Well before Prue picks up a chair and brandishes it over Hamlin, his character radiates fury. His pugilistic manner is so evident, Prue's center of gravity actually seems to become lower to the ground. In contrast, the striped-shirted clone in the final scene has such an unflappably cheerful disposition, his father finds him as off-putting as the original.

Prue's portrayal of the first clone comes the closest to infusing empathy into the play. This is the only son to have been raised by the father. And there is a definite rapport between this son and father. A sense of shared history even permeates their arguments.

Daniel Ettinger's set is the production's cleverest element. Two skewed back walls are covered with mirrored panels that frequently show several reflections of each actor -- a visual metaphor for cloning. In addition, the wood squares in the parquet floor suggest a chess or checker board, on which one character is often trying to outmaneuver the other. At one point, Prue's leather-jacketed character uses this floor to play hopscotch -- injecting menace into even an innocent children's game.

Once in a while, most people wonder: "If I had it to do over ..." And A Number presents several possible answers. But fascinating as these may be in theory, their representation on stage is far less so. And that disappointing circumstance is its own source of wonder.


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