nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
September 10, 2008
Jay Rohloff, artistic director of The Clockwork Theatre, is currently starring as three different men in his company's production of Caryl Churchill's A Number—three different men who are the same man, sort of, because Churchill's provocative play is about the notion of cloning, and Rohloff's impressive work here is as the original Bernard Salter, his clone, and one of many other Bernard clones (this one named Michael Black) who are floating around the universe. How many clones are there? The answer gives the play its somewhat enigmatic name.
The play, barely an hour long, unfolds in a number of brief scenes that together expose and mostly resolve the mystery behind the multiple Bernards. The setting is always the living room of Salter, sire of Bernard and his clones; in each scene save the last, one of his sons (or "sons") hammers away to learn more about his history. Why was the original clone made? What happened to Bernard's mother? Churchill uses her scenario to explore other, larger questions. What are the parameters of relationships defined solely by DNA? Which matters more, nature or nurture?
The ethical ramifications of this technology—which still lay in our future, at this writing—are clearly Churchill's focus, but the interactions and relationships among the individuals in her play are what captured my attention most, and I wanted to know more about all of them. Churchill's trademark Pinter-influenced pauses and withholding of information make this play not as involving as it might be; and her too blatantly manipulative playwright's hand, forcing the argument into a certain direction with nothing substantive behind it, further distances us from the drama's characters and themes. (Her play is science fiction, after all; I kept feeling the need for more grounding, but Churchill's minimalism fails to provide it.)
But A Number is still riveting theatre in its fashion, and in the two Bernards—one of whom is a rough-hewn product of the streets, while the other is a smart, well-educated, curious, gentle man—and the third "son" Michael (completely different from the other two) provide Rohloff with tour de force material. He makes the most of the opportunity, creating three remarkably separate individuals, providing them not only with different accents and physicalizations but seemingly different souls. It's quite an achievement, and marks this young actor as a talent to watch.
Sean Marrinan is less compelling as the father (admittedly a much less showy role). But Beverly Brumm's direction is excellent, keeping the play moving briskly and tautly, and holding the audience at the edge of their seats as the elements of the mystery are resolved. The set, by Larry Laslo, consisting of two mod-looking set pieces in a stark and expensive living room—shaped, I thought, to remind us of a sperm and an egg—feels like the perfect environment to contain this play. Jocelyn Melechinsky's costumes and Benjamin C. Tevelow's lighting further enhance the work, though the uncredited video projected above the set between scenes, which looked like excerpts from a sonogram, is less effective.
All in all, The Clockwork Theatre has done an exemplary job with a challenging and interesting contemporary play. Those who may have missed Churchill's work the first time around in NYC, and those on the lookout for exceptional acting talent, will want to take in Rohloff's fine performance in this commendable production.