- The Washington Times - Monday, September 12, 2005

British playwright Caryl Churchill has a way of making the familiar frightening. In her play “Far Away,” which was chillingly staged at Studio Theatre two seasons ago, she turned the humble hat into a symbol of shame and death. With “A Number,” once again produced by Studio, the cliche “a chip off the old block” takes on a threatening aura.

Miss Churchill is a highly political writer who shrouds her views in mystery rather than polemic. The brilliant “Far Away” dealt with the fallout of a future totalitarian government with a series of brutal and fantastic images. The play was as brief and shocking as a nightmare.

A similar night-terror quality grips her newest work, “A Number,” directed with ferocious economy by Joy Zinoman and featuring two virtuoso actors, Ted van Griethuysen and Tom Story, who played the elder and younger A.E. Houseman to perfection a few years ago in Studio’s “The Invention of Love.”

Mr. Van Griethuysen plays Salter, a slightly seedy Englishman with a mane of unmanageable hair and a pinstriped suit that he wears with a trace of gangster vulgarity. At the beginning of this hourlong play, he is visited by his anguished son, Bernard (Mr. Story), and haltingly tells Bernard of the serpentine circumstances of his birth.

Salter is an oily man of mystery, seemingly incapable of telling the truth in whole chunks. Bernard’s birth story comes out in fits and starts, each development leading to more confused revelation. It soon comes out that Bernard is a clone, cooked up in the petri dish after Salter’s “original” son supposedly died.

“I wanted just one — one more — because he was perfect,” Salter says by way of explanation. Yet not one, but at least 20, Bernards are running around London and elsewhere.

In the course of the play, Salter meets “a number” of other clones (all played by Mr. Story), and the “original,” who may be a figment of his father’s fractured imagination — or perhaps a perversion of the prodigal son returning to papa. Some of the clones are blandly cordial, some distraught, some homicidally jealous of the other copies. (One of Mr. Story’s evocations of Bernard is a sneering punk who brays as scarily as Malcolm McDowell in “A Clockwork Orange.”) A dastardly paternal instinct and curiosity have led Salter to find them all to see what his genetic code has wrought.

“A Number” questions the morality of cloning as well as its potentially dangerous ramifications. Salter’s quest for the perfect child leads to a series of cold decisions about his progeny and casts a pall on the whole concept of “designer children.” When parents play God, they must accept the risk that they may wind up with an amalgam of Mother Teresa’s goodness and Albert Einstein’s brain crossed with the compassion of, say, Josef Mengele.

The production is large in thought but compact in dialogue and staging. Debra Booth’s setting is starkly modern, two chairs in the middle of the space that change position as the play progresses.

A black box lined in crimson hangs over the stage, as if threatening to either trap or en-womb the two men. The Beatles song “They Say It’s Your Birthday” plays between all the sharp scenes.

Mr. van Griethuysen and Mr. Story seem to have an easy familial bond, a communication seemingly bred in the bone. From that basis of familiarity, they move out into more treacherous territory: Salter’s age and disillusionment pitted against Bernard’s sense of terrible awakening and wonder. Their nimble dance is truly between father and son — the elder both fascinated and repelled by what he has made, the younger longing for identity and yet a breed apart from his creator.

“A Number” is a profound and confounding play that makes you question modern technologies and new societies seeking to “improve” on old ways of being.

***1/2

WHAT: “A Number,” by Caryl Churchill

WHERE: Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW

WHEN: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and 2 and 7 p.m. on Sundays. Through Oct. 16.

TICKETS: $32 to $52

PHONE: 202/332-3300

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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