Caryl Churchill’s play A Number unfolds like a hall of slowly warping mirrors. The play opens with Salter, in his early 60s, talking to his 35-year-old son Bernard. Their conversation’s jagged. Each interrupts the other, jumps in, as if pushing for a point or fending one off. They talk about people and things. And things as people. They speak of numbers, or “a number of them, or us.” Bernard wants to add information, Salter to subtract.
Bernard, it turns out, is Salter’s son once-removed. He’s B2, a copy of Salter’s original son, cloned by “some mad scientist.”
Churchill grabbed an idea thousands of playwrights have probably entertained and took it places most wouldn’t. B2, it turns out, isn’t the only clone. The scientist — for experimental reasons or an Andy Warhol proliferation fetish — made 20 Bernards. Salter says they’re just duplicates, “things,” calling to mind the cyborgs in Blade Runner. B2 disagrees: they are every bit as human as the original. They just weren’t first.
Imagine 20 versions of you, in the world, going about their day. Not twins. You. Imagine the sibling rivalry of that — like, who gets what for Christmas? Imagine seeing yourself across the street (“if that’s me over there,” one of the Bernards asks, “then who am I?”). Imagine a narcissist complaining, “It isn’t about me?” But, technically, it would be.
Or would it? In five terse, packed scenes, Churchill combines nature with nurture. Different clones, raised different ways, become different Bernards. The effect makes for a Rashomon of replication.
For Cygnet Theatre, Francis Gercke plays B2 (sensitive, nervous), Bernard (the original: a thug, his tattoos a mark of Cain?), and Michael Black (socially adjusted but barely recognizable, save for facial similarities). Whether flopping backwards on the leather sofa or doing violence to an orange, Gercke’s sharp, physical performance shows how different a similarity can be.
When young Bernard turned nasty, Salter rejected him and had another son made — cloning roulette: in the future, if parents don’t like a child, can they dump it and retry with the same genes? But Salter became such a loving, caring father of B2, it’s as if he re-cloned himself.
As the various Salters, Douglas Jacobs verges on the strident, early, and becomes moving in the end as Salter pays the price for playing God. In the process, he opens up a counter-theme: Churchill suggests that each of us may be multiple, may already have “a number” of different selves within us.
Churchill gives no stage directions and lists the characters only by their ages. As she did with Yellowman, also for Cygnet, director Esther Emery fills another nondescriptive text with theatrical life. Churchill says the scene is “where Salter lives.” Jungah Han’s midnight blue set, tile squares from floor to ceiling, could be a lavish, ancient Roman bath. Exposed caulking creates groupings of squares. As the play’s theme takes hold, the clusters resemble chains of molecules.
The Lipbalms are vacationing in Israel. They have, or have not, allowed Jed Feuer and Boyd Graham to use their penthouse for a backer’s audition of The Big Bang, a musical. Audience members at the North Coast Rep are potential investors. The show’s a history of the world (the Western world, mostly; the only representative of the East is Gandhi’s mother, and she complains about raising such a contentious son), with a cast of 800-something, costing 83 mil, and taking 12 hours. Since the authors only have 90 minutes to showcase highlights, they race through the centuries, hurdling five or six at a time, and slam the brakes at Woodstock. The musical ends with a list of names from popular culture and a whimper.
The best part, along with Steven Withers’s versatile keyboard: the authors ransack the apartment for props and costumes. A pillow, minus the stuffing, becomes Columbus’s jaunty cap; plump cloves of garlic, Eva Braun’s locks (she sings, “For the longest weil, I thought his name was ‘Heil’ ”). Curtains get pulled down, sheets ripped; oranges serve a decorative function, until they sag. The spontaneous use of found items always draws a laugh.
The rest of the show’s hit and miss — and clobber, if you count the number of racial stereotypes relentlessly exploited for humor.
Originally the authors played themselves. At North Coast Rep, Andrew Ableson and Omiri Schein haven’t figured out how good they should be: too polished, and the frame tale doesn’t work; too amateurish, the songs and impersonations don’t. So they’re somewhere in between, half into an accent or vocal riff, barely Frank Sinatra and Marlene Dietrich. The result: many of the numbers tend to sound the same, and the overall joke wears thin. Both actors, it becomes obvious, could do far better work if asked.
A Number by Caryl Churchill
Cygnet Theatre, 6663 El Cajon Boulevard, College Area
Directed by Esther Emery; cast: Douglas Jacobs, Francis Gercke; scenic design, Jungah Han; costumes, Veronica Murphy; lighting, Matthew Novotny; sound, George Ye
Playing through June 29; Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Sunday at 7:00 p.m. Matinee Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-337-1525.
The Big Bang, music by Jed Feuer, book and lyrics by Boyd Graham
North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987 Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Solana Beach
Directed by Rick Simas; cast: Omri Schein, Andrew Ableson; scenic design, Marty Burnett; costumes, Peter Herman; lighting, Bonnie Breckenridge; sound, Chris Luessmann
Playing through June 22; Wednesday at 7:00 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Sunday at 7:00 p.m. Matinee Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 858-481-1055.