Tuesday, September 16, 2008

A Number

Caryl Churchill's A Number is dismissively vague about its plot, its language is built to circumlocate the small scraps of detail the characters are dying for, and it runs under an hour. And yet, every minute is brilliant . . . or at least, it should be. But Clockwork Theatre's revival of this play lacks the necessary nuance, focusing more on the literal science than the literary humanity, and their production comes across as digital rather than analog and certainly far from Swiss in its precision. These short, sharp pinpricks of lines no longer muse on identity ("If that's me over there, who am I?"); instead, they are heavyhanded runs of emotionally dry dialogue.

In a series of five scenes, Salter (Sean Marrinan), a static presence ("If you'd tried harder, you'd have been different from what you were like, and you weren't, were you?") is confronted by three of his sons (all played by Jay Rohloff). There's Bernard 1, now forty years old, stunted, somewhat psychotically, in his childhood--his mother a deeply depressed and ultimately suicidal woman, and his father, Salter, an emotionally distant wreck with a drinking problem. Then there's Bernard 2, a thirty-five-year-old clone, meek and mild-mannered, who Salter had created in a selfish attempt to redeem himself for placing the original in childcare. At last, there's Michael Black, another clone from the same batch (one of 21), who, as a happy, well-adjusted model citizen, serves as the ultimate kick for nurture over nature: asked, at the end of the play, if he likes his life, he replies, simply, "I do, yes," and then jabs the knife in, "sorry."

For this neat trick to work, Salter needs to remain aloof, a blameless, emotionally distant man, and at the start, Marrinan seems to have that down: when Bernard 2 comes to him with the news, he is better at haggling about how much to sue for than actually comforting his son's concerns that he might not be the original: "Because I'm your father" has never seemed like such a weak excuse before. But when Bernard 1 enters, Marrinan breaks his stony facade, and comes off as a child himself, begging to be loved with big pants of hammy sorrow. This makes it harder for Rohloff, who ends up competing with Marrinan in each scene to show just how different he can be, and ultimately relying on superficial changes (like a cockney accent, or a threatening costume) to help him get his point across. Ultimately, these lines of both characters are taken at face value, with nothing invested underneath them: Bernard 1 is angry, sure, and justifably so, but he's never thirty-five-years-worth-of-stored-up-resentment frightening.

That inner machinery--the really complex ticking of the heart--is what's so sorely missing from this production of A Number. Beverly Brumm's direction, like Larry Laslo's boring set design, takes everything literally, and, along with the acting, flattens out the play, focusing on the science (there are projections of cell division between scenes) rather than on the characters. There are moments when all the gears and cogs spin in alignment, but only a number of them.

No comments: