Jim Butz (brother of Tony-winner Norbert Leo Butz) is excellent as three clones of the son of a guilt-stricken father (Anderson Matthews). Each grapples with questions of identity in five "coming-out-of-the-test-tube" scenes. And Mr. Matthews is quite strong in a role that Rep audiences will find extremely familiar by now.
The sense of deja vu for both actors is unavoidable. Happily, there are many worse things than twenty or more charismatic Jim Butz's wandering the planet: he's panicked, menacing and dear in his various Xeroxed incarnations in A Number. Ms. Churchill's script gives him lots of intricate thought-mazes to get lost in, in the style of Beckett or Pinter (though without the pauses, of course).
Mr. Matthews, a fine character actor at all events, is back in his guilty tweeds again, completing a trilogy of tragically disruptive fathers from The Goat, or Who is Sylvia through The Retreat From Moscow and culminating in A Number (with time off to play the dry detective in The Pillowman). Thanks to their concurrence, and the Rep's taste in play selection, Mr. Matthews' trio of manly-but-miserable authority figures suddenly reflects the popular view of a complicit God: culpable for every mortal tragedy and every moral failing suffered by wives or sons or clones of sons, for reasons that remain more or less mysterious. But that's what you get for being prematurely majestic in this day and age.
Director Susan Gregg does most of what can politely be done with two men on a three-quarter thrust stage. Her far greater accomplishment is in coaxing Mr. Butz into a meat-grinder of a performance where he's finely nuanced in each role and at full throttle. On opening night, he jittered, jeered and suffered till the final bows, when he demonstrated a little mock collapse for his co-star, as if he were dropping the weight of the world. The Hamlet he's slated to play later this year may be a cake-walk by comparison. Or at least a five-minute egg, compared to the one-minute variety.
If the show were run at the standard pace, pausing for every potential laugh and maybe a scene change or two, we might be there for the usual 100 minutes that all newer plays all seem to run. But Ms. Gregg and her actors manage to give the full measure of future shock in a 55 minutes sprint. Why, they could even run the show twice a night, if only they could clone the actors.
And curiously, half-way through, all the other members of the audience begin to look suspiciously like clones of one another, massed across the thrust stage.
A Number continues in the Emerson Studio Theatre through February 4, 2007. For information visit the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis at www.repstl.org or call (314) 968-4925.