New Rep's "A Number": All My Sons

Dale Place & Nael Nacer in New Rep's "A Number"
(photo: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures)

The current production-
by New Rep-
A Number”-
as in “a number of"...
a short 2002 work-
by Caryl Churchill-
five brief scenes-
just under an hour of...
often a subject without-
sometimes a predicate without...
nature vs. nurture-
a two-hander-
sort of...
but not-
and in the end-
rather than resolutions...

Welcome once again to the fragmented communication typical of the dystopian world of Caryl Churchill, a sort of theatrical haiku. It's hard to process the fact that Churchill, known for such works as Far Away, Cloud 9, Top Girls and Serious Money, was first heard of as far back as almost fifty years ago. In program notes by Eden Ohayon, this play is described (as was the case with several others by her) as questioning our identity in the sense of what makes us individuals in the face of scientific threats to make individuality meaningless. Elsewhere in the program, Director Clay Hopper notes that this play is an exploration of several themes, “the intersection of genetics, identity, masculinity, abuse, neglect, redemption, and ultimate responsibility”, and of course the relationships between fathers and sons, all in the context of biological determinism. To reveal anything more specific would be to unravel the metaphorical onion that Churchill very painstakingly reveals, slowly, tantalizingly, and frustratingly (and only partially). There are allusions to others as “things” that weaken one's identity, events that are unforeseen and unforeseeable, “always not being happy”, sparing someone vs. squashing, and where some one finds joy. Mention is made of the fact that humans share 99% of the same genes with other humans, 79% with chimpanzees, and 30% with lettuce (the last conveying to one person a sense of belonging). And that's all that will be divulged here (except perhaps for the slight spoiler in the header above).

The entire cast consists of Dale Place (as Salter) and Nael Nacer as (Bernard 1, Bernard 2, and Michael Black), with the setting succinctly given as “where Salter lives”. The two actors are positively brilliant in their portrayals of a father and his progeny. Place and Nacer have never been better, and Hopper keenly brings out of them the intensity their roles demand. Their excellence is matched by the extraordinarily apt black and white stark Scenic Design by Cristina Todesco in tandem with the monochromatic Lighting Design by Mary Ellen Stebbins, as well as the minimalist Costume Design by Penney Pinette (with elements such as the subtle appearance of a wedding ring), and suitably eerie Sound Design by Phil Schroeder.

It's a very cerebral effort, and you could easily have heard the proverbial pin drop during the course of the performance, as the audience seemed suitably rapt. Since Churchill is concerned with posing complex ethical questions rather than providing simplistic answers, the whole exercise may well leave you wanting more. And maybe that's the point. If you enjoy being challenged by witty and clever prose delivered by two actors in their prime, this is a verbal rollercoaster you just have to see. And hear...

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