Imagine meeting a clone of your adult self and then confronting your father who commissioned the clone. It is a premise that is designed to make you think, and that is what Caryl Churchill’s play A Number, now playing at the Cherry Lane Studio in the West Village, is meant to do. But in the National Asian American Theatre Company (NAATCO) production, you feel as if the actors are rushing through these ethical dilemmas to get to somewhere where the conversation is more interesting.
Caryl Churchill is the grande dame of living British playwrights. She wrote A Number in 2002, and it premiered that year at London’s Royal Court theatre starring Daniel Craig. The play addresses the big questions raised by cloning in a discussion between a father and his one natural and two cloned sons. It’s a two-hander, which demands subtle changes of character from the actor who plays the three sons and a depth of feeling from the father as he realizes what he has done.
Joel de la Fuente, well-known from his ten seasons on NBC’s Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, plays the three sons with varying degrees of success. “There was some other person this original,” he asks as the cloned son coming to grips with his conception, “some baby or there were a number of us made somehow and you were one of the people who acquired something like that.”
James Saito, best known for his Dr Chen in ABC’s Eli Stone, portrays the father as a befuddled, worn out parent who doesn’t know how to deal with the genetic engineering he set in motion and his experiment in nature versus nurture. The play’s script challenges the actors and director, here Maureen Payne-Hahner, to find a natural rhythm in saying the words as it contains hardly any punctuation. Mr. de la Fuentes and Mr. Saito race through their lines as though Ms Payne-Hahner told them not to breathe. They rush at the dialogue with such haste that the three distinct sons merge into one and the father’s lines are fuzzy and hard to follow. The production ran just 60 minutes, ten minutes short of the advertised time.
Each actor has an impressive body of work to draw on, but one never feels any bond between the parent and the sons, nor between the actors and their stage. The production has an elaborate set, designed by Czerton Lim, suggesting an aspirational suburban interior albeit one where the wallpaper resembles microscope slides of DNA. But the actors barely use the small space and hardly move from their starting positions in each scene. The result in the opening scene is that both appear almost entirely in profile and the audience in this tiny theatre (there are only 60 seats) gains no benefit from the intimacy of the setting. James Saito, as the father, rarely faces the audience directly. The audience is therefore kept at one remove and can never register the anguish that should be evident on the face of this parent. He comes to realize that his genetic meddling has exacerbated his failures as a father, rather than allowing him to have a second chance.
Joel de la Fuente as the sons meanwhile does his best to make the three men distinct. He is helped in this by costume changes that he does on stage with his back to the audience. At the end of each change, he gave an obvious shrug to emphasize the transition. But the speed at which he delivers his lines undermines any hope of registering the different characters. This should be a plum part for a mid-career male actor but Mr. de la Fuente has no time to settle into each persona. At the end, some of the audience, who perhaps didn’t know the play, had missed that he was playing three different men.
In the final scene, the father meets the third incarnation of his “son,” one of a mass-produced batch. Here, the clone is played for laughs as the script suggests. Mr. de la Fuente becomes a robotic, camp clone with shades of Cary Grant delivering rapid repartee in a 1940s film. It’s a delicious pastiche but sadly it’s too broad for the lines where some of the meat of play is delivered.
Perhaps Ms Payne-Hahner needs to remind her cast to slow down so that we can listen to the words. Caryl Churchill writes about the important issues with painful pointedness but unless you’re trained in speed listening you might miss it here.