nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
March 15, 2011
“A twin would be a surprise,” says Bernard, “but a number...”
When Bernard discovers, as an adult, that he has an unspecified number of clones—or perhaps, that he himself is one of an unspecified number of clones, with the original progenitor being someone else entirely—obvious questions arise: How did this happen? When did this happen? How many of them—or is it us?—are there? Who could have done such a thing? But as he tries to analyze the situation with his father, Salter, it becomes clear that there’s much more to the story—because Salter is not surprised that Bernard is (or has) a clone, only that there are “a number” of them. Which leads inevitably to the revelation, one confession at a time, that everything Bernard thought he knew about his origins—only child of a single father, his mother having died in childbirth—is wrong.
For Bernard, getting information, or even solid opinions, from Salter is exquisitely difficult; Salter has hedged himself with a fortress full of half-truths and thirty-five-year-old secrets; his first impulse, always, is to evade or conceal, which only adds to the detective-story quality of the piece. Salter is the most duplicitous of parents, denying everything until his hand is forced by a question his current story can’t account for. Even as first Bernard, and then Salter, meet and confront some of the number, Salter is still trying to hide his most despicable actions, and hold onto his only noble motivation—he wanted a second chance to be a good father. It’s perhaps the saddest truth about these characters that Salter genuinely thought he was doing a good thing when he got involved with the cloning project.
Caryl Churchill’s elliptical, tightly compacted (barely an hour) play is constructed like an ingenious puzzle box, with every revelation hiding another secret. Contributing to the puzzle, all the momentous actions—escapes, murders, suicides, investigations—take place in the gaps between the scenes, so the audience is always several beats behind the characters.
What’s intriguing about the piece is that, in the way Churchill so often does, she’s looking at her material both on a narrative, storytelling level, and through a structural device that uses the very mechanisms of theater to refract the same questions. Here, the story raises philosophical inquiries: What is at the core of identity? How do nature and nurture combine to form a person, and how much of human character is not precisely explained by any of those things? How ultimately unknowable is even our closest connection—our genetic twin? What does it mean to be a parent of a potentially infinite number of iterations of your biological child? And on the structural level, these questions are mirrored, of course, by the fact that the same actor plays Bernard and all the other Bernard-versions we encounter—a very literal genetic sameness mixed with different acting choices, a different character applied onto the identical actor.
Although the play is both puzzling and fascinating, the production sometimes feels a little chilly, a little formal, as if director Maureen Payne-Hahner is more invested in the intellectual investigations and structural conceits of the play than in the characters. The dialogue often seems rhythmically off—as if it ought to be running headlong into itself, lines toppling over other lines as the characters jab at and test each other, and here, instead, the pacing feels almost stately, far too measured, and without the rise and fall of tension between the characters. The physical staging, too, is largely static. James Saito gets at the slipperiness of Salter, and Joel de la Fuente nicely delineates the three different Bernard-versions through his language, his posture, and facial expressions—but they always seem a little distant from each other, and the stakes never seem high enough.
In the play’s final scene, Salter meets a clone named Michael, a sunny-tempered math teacher who’s known of his genesis his whole life, and is fundamentally untroubled by it. In fact, he seems utterly lacking in introspection; rather than questioning his identity, Michael is delighted by sharing not only his entire genome with many others, but also 90 percent of it with a chimpanzee, and 30 percent with a lettuce. It makes him feel like he belongs in the world—where the same revelation eats away at Salter and his family. It should be a deeply poignant moment, but because the emotional arc of the play hasn’t really sunk in, it’s simply a quizzical, mildly thought-provoking one. The play’s questions remain intriguing, but the impact is definitely diluted by the restraint of the production.