The play features two actors, one of whom plays three different variants on ... well, himself. The son (Scott Barrow) learns that he is simply one of many young men created from the same DNA sample, and he confronts his father, Salter (Richard Bekins), with his discovery. Over the course of the fifty-minute play, Salter retraces the events that led up to his drastic decision, and father and sons face the consequences. The dialogue wavers between realistic heart-to-hearts and surreal banter, and both men deftly handle this unique writing style.
Of particular note is Scott Barrow's effortless transitions into each of his three manifestations. With a few simple readjustments — the squaring of his shoulders, the set of his jaw — Barrow creates an earnest but confused young man, a well-adjusted yet shallow schoolteacher, and the tense, overlooked son with a tendency toward violence. But what makes his performance particularly fascinating is that no matter who he is in a given moment, Barrow maintains overtones of all three of his characters throughout, which cuts right to the heart of the play's nature/nurture query. Despite the circumstances that have molded the young men into distinct individuals, it would seem genetics are not to be completely denied.
Bekins gives a nicely understated performance as the father who was so desperate to get it right he retraced his own steps. He is the only constant in this story, and yet it is never clear whether he truly was unaware of the additional clones, or what he wants from the sons he does know. This makes him something of a unnerving figure, while at the same time his good-natured calm endears him to us.
Despite its short run-time, A Number is a multi-layered, complex play, and Zizka's direction captures its essence extremely well. Other than a few moments where the movement feels unnatural, his staging is excellent, and the overall tone of the play is near-perfect. The sparsely appointed circular set by Mimi Lien gives intimacy to the play and permits the actors to drive the story without interference. The projected silent video clips, designed by Jiri Zizka, seem to be total non-sequiturs until the next scene begins, at which point their relevance becomes clear. Bill Moriarty creates a chilling soundscape out of strange echoes, distorted lullaby, and unnatural sound effects.
Throughout the Wilma's slick production, new facets of the cloning debate are examined through the lens of domestic life, and once the gravity of their dilemma has been examined, the weight lifts and the dialogue keeps getting funnier as the situation progresses. Still, the problems of duplication in this hypothetical world persist, and even while we laugh, we still wonder if this future could ever come to pass.
A Number runs through June 4 as part of the Wilma's Caryl Churchill Festival, along with Cloud 9, which closes May 28. For tickets, call 215-546-7824, or online at www.wilmatheater.org. "Festival Package" includes purchasing a ticket for either play ($32 minimum) and get the other one for $10 off any day, any time.