Dale Place and Nael Nacer in Caryl Churchill's A Number, directed by Clay Hopper, at Boston's New Repertory Theatre.
Dale Place and Nael Nacer in Caryl Churchill's A Number, directed by Clay Hopper, at Boston's New Repertory Theatre.
(© Andrew Brilliant)

In the theater, less isn't usually more. But in the case of A Number, Caryl Churchill's taut, thrilling 2002 play, it is. I was fortunate enough to see A Number in its American premiere at the New York Theatre Workshop in 2004, with Sam Shepard and Dallas Roberts starring in a production that practically fades from memory when compared with Clay Hopper's gripping revival at the New Repertory Theatre.

Set in the not-too-distant future, Salter (Dale Place) is separately confronted by his sons, both called Bernard (an astonishing Nael Nacer), who want answers. Bernard 2, who was raised by Salter, has discovered that he is only one of "a number" of other clones. Feeling that the last three decades of his life have been a lie, he is devastated and tries to probe his father for the truth.

It turns out that Bernard 1 is the "original," though he was sent away as a young child to be raised elsewhere as Salter's battle with addiction rendered him unable to be a parent. Salter decides to have him cloned so that he can have a second chance at raising his son. Rather than there being only one clone, though, Salter soon learns that there are many of them. And, after incidents with Bernard 1 and Bernard 2, Salter seeks out one of these unintended clones, Michael, who finds the prospect of being a clone delightful, a stark contrast to the high-stakes pain and anger present in both Bernards.

Salter seems to be taken aback by Michael's happiness, since both boys that he had a hand in raising are so tragically damaged. "I like my life…sorry," says Michael in the play's final scene, apologizing glibly to Salter. Dale Place gives a razor sharp, accomplished performance as Salter. With the polished speech of a linguist (and the professorial attire to match, designed by Penney Pinette), Place carefully curates moments in which he chooses to finally unleash Salter's greatest fears and regrets to allow for maximum impact. Nael Nacer's performance in three different roles is searing and revelatory. His physical, verbal, and emotional transformation from one character to the next will leave you in awe of his profound acting expertise.

Director Clay Hopper's staging is both startling and sleek, matching the sparseness of Churchill's script. The miraculous, unforgettable performances that he has extracted from Place and Nacer are the crowning achievement in this production. Further enhancing this vision is Cristina Todesco's sterile, industrial-looking set with a white floor and giant, flickering fluorescent pillars. Mary Ellen Stebbins' lighting is appropriately cool.

Churchill's work sets out to put the final nail in the coffin of the nature vs. nurture debate. In this production, however, that is not what's on trial. Rather, Hooper's interpretation of A Number offers a remarkably dramatic consideration of second chances, and suggests that perhaps there are limits when it comes to the quests for redemption. The only downside of A Number is that Churchill writes about three specific clones and lets us in on the knowledge that there are as many as 20. It's a sin then that we don't get to see Nacer take a crack at all of them.