The apparent impetus for Caryl Churchill's A Number was to imagine a situation that could happen in the "near-future": A human is cloned, at age four, by his mad-scientist father, then put up for adoption. By the time he reaches adulthood, Bernard 1 (played by Gabriel Marin, in a new CenterREP production) knows nothing of his parentage. Hardened by a rough childhood, he's sullen and slouchy, prone to lash out spontaneously, and then crumple. At age 35, Black reunites with his father Salter (James Carpenter), and learns that he has not just one, but twenty illegitimate brothers, all duplicates of one another. (Marin plays Bernards 1 and 2, in addition to a third brother, Michael Black.) Dad blames it on the lab. Bernard 1 is incensed. Drama ensues. The creepy part is how eerily prescient — even realistic — the situation seems. It needn't be the near future. It could have already happened.
We cloned Dolly the Sheep in 1996, which means a human could have conceivably followed, shortly thereafter. And hey, why not? We've already seen a generation of sperm-bank children enter adulthood, along with the progeny of egg donors. In vitro fertilization is no big deal, anymore, and it seems unremarkable for a kid to grow up with no connection to his "biological" parents. As Michael Black states, we've got 99 percent of the same genes as an ape, and 30 percent the same as a lettuce. So what, exactly, is so frightening about twenty guys sharing an identical genetic pedigree?
In fact, Bernard 1 and his brothers aren't the scary boogie men of this play. It's their father who's the real villain. Salter is burdened with giving us most of the exposition, but we know right off the bat he's an unreliable narrator. The mere fact that he kept those twenty clones a secret for so many years — not to mention cloning his child in the first place — reveals a lot about his character. Add to that Salter's multiple explanations for the death of Black's mother, and his unsatisfying excuse for having twenty Bernards, rather than one. (In the opening scene he threatens litigation against the lab, and asks Bernard 1 how much to charge, in damages, for one human life.) It's never quite clear if there was a mother in the first place, or who is the original, and who is the copy.
Churchill posits one possible reading of the play, though to get it requires a little stretch of the imagination. The point is that this is not a straight story, nor a whodunit. Under Michael Butler's skillful direction, we're supposed to become part of this web of deception. Moreover, we're supposed to walk away uncomfortable, knowing we've been duped. And that only happens in the hands of a capable actor. Carpenter is one. A Berkeley Rep staple, he's so good at dissembling that he can put up a front for other characters, then get caught in a lie, then replace it with another lie, and always leave you guessing as to which story is most plausible. Marin has an even tougher job, given that he has to shoulder three roles — essentially three versions of the same person, each with a distinct personality. (Bernard 1 is aggressive and mercurial, Bernard 2 is abashed, Black is cheery and repressed). He brings the question of predestination versus free will into quick relief.
At fifty minutes with no intermission, this play is taut and dramatic. The stage in CenterREP's Knight Stage 3 Theatre is set up for theater-in-the-round, meaning the audience encircles the stage. That might explain the actors' constant movements. They trace the periphery like two boxers in a ring, cross-examining each other. Marin alters his mannerisms ever so slightly to play the three brothers. As Bernard 1 he hunches his shoulders and looks ready for combat. As Bernard 2 he shrivels. As Michael Black he dons a camel-hair coat, slicks his hair back, and stands up straight. Salter relates differently to all three characters. His interaction with Bernard 1 is one of fear and an eerie form of tenderness — at one point, he strokes his son's ear menacingly. Michael Black, in contrast, frustrates the father to no end. Unlike the two Bernards, he's stolid and tightly contained, seemingly inured to the problem of having no concrete identity. That's all Salter's fault, but he's the one who seems most disturbed by the third son's complacency. "Do you like dogs?" he demands. "Do you have asthma?"
The set of A Number, designed by Butler and Scott Denison, is bone-white and futuristic. There's a laptop on one table, three chairs, and two glasses of water. The scenes are short and tight. They often stop mid-sentence, punctuated by an onslaught of heavy industrial music. The idea, of course, is to set this story several decades into the future — perhaps a morally bankrupt future, in which everything looks white and homogenous, and it really is permissible to create human clones. But A Number is not really a play about an ethical quandary. It's more of a philosophical exercise. Supposedly, we come away having learned something about the primacy of human souls over their genetic material. Perhaps we come away with a lot of unanswered questions. Churchill could have easily extended the play to three hours, introduced us to nineteen more Bernards, and led us down all possible rabbit holes. Instead, she leaves us hanging.