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San Francisco by Richard Connema

A Provocative Production of
Caryl Churchill's A Number

Also see Richard's reviews of Roulette, Iphigenia at Aulis and Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me

A Number
Josh Charles and
Bill Smitrovich

American Conservatory Theatre is currently presenting the shortest play in its thirty-nine year history. A Number is presented in five short scenes in a fast paced 50 minutes.  This beats the record of the seventy-minute production of Sexual Perversity in Chicago earlier this year.

Caryl Churchill is one of the most imperative and important playwrights of her generation.  As far as I am concerned, she ranks with David Mamet, Harold Pinter and Edward Albee on changing the American theatre.  I will go to anything that this famed British playwright writes since she has said, "I know quite well what kind of society I'd like: decentralized, nonauthoritarian, communist, nonsexist - a society in which people can be in touch with their feelings and in control of their lives."

A Number opened at the Royal Court Theatre in the fall of 2002 with Michael Gambon playing the father and rising British actor Daniel Craig (the next James Bond) playing the three roles of his cloned sons.  The American premiere was at the New York Theatre Workshop in December 2004 with Sam Shepard playing the father and Dallas Roberts playing the sons.  The London Evening Standard called it "the first true play of the 21st century," and the New York Times, Associated Press and Entertainment Weekly called it one of the best plays of 2004.

In the American Conservatory Theatre production, two superb actors dominate the stage in the engrossing short play about the frightening prospect of cloning human beings. One almost wishes to have seen more of these two splendid actors discussing genetic experimentation.  The play raises prickly ideas of a personal nature. It is about an individual's identity and how personalities are formed.   There is a discussion of sibling rivalry and the parenting of the sons in the quick five scenes.

A Number opens when anxious son Bernard (Josh Charles plays all of the clones) meets head-on with his widowed father Salter (Bill Smitrovich) with the knowledge that carbon copies of himself are inhabiting the world. He uses the term "a number of us," hence the title. He wants to know if he is the prototype or a copy.  Salter seems reticent and Bernard receives no satisfying answer from his slippery father.

In the second scene we meet another son, also named Bernard; he is a darker, more brusquely critical counterpart to the first Bernard.   The audience finds out this was the original model and he is angry and resentful at having been cloned.  He gets more information from the father about the first clone and tragedy occurs between the two sons. In the final scene another clone named Michael appears. He is an easygoing math teacher with a wife and three sons and he appears to be very happy with his life.  He is somewhat happy that he is part of series and he really does not want to dig deeper into the cloning business.

Caryl Churchill uses stylized speech reminiscent of David Mamet in the first two scenes.  The banter between the two is crisp and sharp and keeps you interested in the confrontation between father and son.  The last scene shows the comedy style of Ms. Churchill with the laid back cloned son really not caring how he was conceived.  

Bill Smitrovich (Broadway Arthur Miller's The American Clock, Off-Broadway The Skin of Our Teeth, The Winter's Tale, many films and television series) has a magnetic presence on stage.  His concise manner of speech is marvelous to hear.  Josh Charles (Richard Greenberg's The Well Appointed Room with Steppenwolf in Chicago, plus many film appearances) creates three penetratingly defined characters in the three sons. He can be defenseless and apprehensive in one scene and empowered with malice in the next. His portrayal as the laid back Michael is quite entertaining.

The New York production used a sparse set with only a table and couch against a brick wall, and the audience looked down on the production as if they were in an operating room.  David Korin has designed a strange oblong set that looks like a richly detailed box going all the way up to the rafters of the proscenium stage. It takes about one half of the Geary Theatre stage and is located dead center.  The wood paneled office of Salter is richly furnished and the towering walls shows innumerable identical ducks in diamond shape frames.  When entering the theatre you think you are looking at a three-dimensional, tall rectangular screen.  The set is surrounded by a solid black frame with luminous gilt trim.  As each brief scene closes you see Russell H. Champa's wonderful lights flashing and hear Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen's sound effects that sound like a swoosh of air as if a door has closed loudly.

Director Anna D. Shapiro's direction is sharp and clear. She keeps the dialogue taut and liquid and punctuates the five scenes with the excellent use of the sound and lights. 

A Number is playing at the Geary Theatre, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco through May 28th .  A.C.T.'s last production of the season will be Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht's aptly named gangster musical Happy End, opening at the Geary on June 8th.


Photo: Kevin Berne


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema



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