Breakthroughs in medical technology do more than extend human life. In a happy side effect, they can pump new blood into overly familiar theatrical themes. Thanks to genetic and health care research, plays that explore human identity can surgically remove obsolete contrivances like bump-on-the-head amnesia, unknown twins and mistaken identity.
Earlier this year, Actor's Express' Echoes of Another Man examined the implications of brain transplants, while in 2004, Synchronicity Performance Group's Slide Glide the Slippery Slope debated the ethics of cloning from multiple angles.
Human cloning provides the engrossing, unnerving crux to A Number, the opening work of 7 Stages' Caryl Churchill Festival. Directed by Joe Gfaller, the short, unsettling play does more than float some disquieting sci-fi ideas about copying people, but becomes an unexpectedly meaty drama about broken family ties.
The only thing you can predict about Churchill's writing is its unpredictability: The British playwright delights in strange dialogue and head games. All of A Number's scenes begin in the middle of an action, forcing us to piece the details together. In the first scene, middle-aged Salter (Larry Larson) discusses with his thirtyish son, Bernard (John Benzinger), the revelation that cloned copies of Bernard have existed since his birth. The father makes a show of outrage -- the cloning supposedly took place without his knowledge -- but he so evasively recounts Bernard's infancy that we suspect Salter of complicity.
Bernard reacts with shock and feelings of violation, at times referring to the duplicates as "things" and not people. A Number speculates whether cloning can diminish a person's individuality. "They've damaged your uniqueness, weakened your identity," Salter says amid talk of suing the scientists.
But is Bernard really the "original" offspring, as his father claims? In the second scene, Benzinger portrays another, physically identical son who also has the impression that he came first, and the rest were copies. Sorting out the truth provides A Number's compelling mystery. Churchill squarely argues that nurture trumps nature: Though the two sons have identical genes, they're polar opposites. The first Bernard has a mild, tentative manner, while the second, armored in a leather jacket, proves hostile and unstable.
Although the sons never meet on stage, increasingly fraught tensions unfold between them. With the bustling urban sound effects between scenes, we can vividly imagine their offstage encounters -- it's like a taut thriller with "twinning" special effects taking place during the scene changes. Benzinger's performance as the aggressive clone never quite clicks, however. Perhaps he's overcompensating for playing multiple roles in quick succession, but with his lowered brows and stalking gait, he comes across like a cliché of a psycho, while the actor otherwise makes extremely rich, original choices in the rest of the play.
Even if the play didn't hinge on cloning, A Number becomes an edge-of-your-seat drama. The central dynamic increasingly resembles the fallout of divorce and remarriage on young children. The hostile son resembles the resentful child of a broken home, while the meek one could be the progeny of a more attentive marriage. Churchill raises the stakes of sibling rivalry and neglectful fathering until they approach Old Testament proportions.
Larson goes a long way toward humanizing A Number with his complex portrayal of Salter, who comes across as warm, vulnerable and anguished yet untrustworthy. The character has a remote quality -- we never take what he's saying on faith -- yet Larson doesn't mistake that for being unemotional, and we recognize his feelings of guilt and affection even when he recounts his callous behaviors.
Compared to a noisy movie like The Island, A Number advances far more intriguing ideas about cloning. Science may provide people with more options to reproduce, but Churchill suggests that may simply give parents more chances to mess up their kids. The play concludes with the melancholy realization that no matter how much we learn about DNA, the human soul remains unknowable, perhaps even to ourselves.