A ‘Number’ of shortcomings

A man stands, wide-eyed and frozen, with nowhere to turn. The unspeakable horror of the knowledge he has just received begins to set in. His entire life has been a lie; he attempts to grapple with the fact that nothing, including himself, is who or what he thought. He is … a clone.

Yawn.

What began with Dolly the sheep and evolved into today’s stem-cell war has become entertainment’s newest niche. James Bond, biopics and suburban discontent are out; cloning is in.

And Studio Theatre has hopped on the bandwagon. “A Number,” its newest one-act in a season of “power plays,” is playwright Caryl Churchill’s take in the struggle for family unity in an era where test-tube tots are as real as the next kid. Unfortunately, the fractured script and humdrum chemistry turn what could have been an interesting juxtaposition into something preachy and mundane.

Set in a spartan living room, the play features Ted van Griethuysen as Salter, a man struggling to deal with the repercussions of a dangerously erroneous choice: his grown son, Bernard (Tom Story), has just discovered that he is a clone – a “do-over” – from a previous son gone wrong. Others were also created in secret, and Salter must face his decision as new, old and undiscovered offspring furiously collide.

Of course, none of this is clear until the play is nearly over. Scenes begin and end in the middle of a conversation, and it’s not until the end of the second scene (out of five) that we discover Story is playing three versions of the same person: the original son, his clone and one of the “extras,” each of whom confronts Salter. The enigmatic plot struggles along with implausible events – if it takes a murder-suicide combination to advance a story about family struggle, something’s off – and the topics of cloning and father-son relationships are not well-developed enough to resonate emotionally.

Yet another distraction from the story at hand is the space between scenes: the lights flash on and off and Story appears silhouetted in a doorway, while drums and electric guitar pulse through the theatre. The music video throwback is meant to indicate the entrance of a different clone, but instead serves only to interrupt an already disjointed story.

Director Joy Zinoman’s messy staging is not the only problem. Story eagerly approaches the challenge of playing three people who look and sound the same, but ambition does not compensate for his overt hamming and disingenuous, overemphasized British accent. Van Griethuysen, on the other hand, manages the extremely difficult task of appearing both sympathetic and crude simultaneously, presenting a glimpse of what the play might have been in different hands.

“A Number’s” examination of cloning drags Churchill’s work into the 21st century, but at the end of the day it’s just another tired nature-vs.-nurture debate. The play’s final tragedy is not so much tragic as it is just another dissociated puzzle piece, and like recent Hollywood explorations of the same topic, it leaves little impression in its wake except for perhaps relief at its brief running time.

“A Number” is playing at the Studio Theatre until Oct. 16. Call 202-332-3300 for tickets and information.

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