James Saito and Joel de la Fuente in A Number
(© William P. Steele)
James Saito and Joel de la Fuente in A Number
(© William P. Steele)
The nature versus nurture debate gets a sci-fi twist in Caryl Churchill's A Number, being given a strong revival by the National Asian American Theatre Company (NAATCO), at the Cherry Lane Studio Theatre. The premise of the work is that a man named Bernard (Joel de la Fuente) was cloned at a young age without his knowledge or consent, and "a number" of genetically identical copies were made and have grown up, with all of them unaware that they were not the "original."

As the play opens, one of these men confronts his father, Salter (James Saito), after finding out about the cloning, and wanting to understand how this could have happened -- as well as his father's complicity in the process. Salter purports to be shocked and outraged, but he keeps getting caught in lies and evasive answers so that anything he says needs to be viewed with some skepticism.

Director Maureen Payne-Hahner makes a few questionable staging choices, particularly in having de la Fuente pace back and forth through a good chunk of the first scene. The movement does not seem strongly motivated, and feels awkward, particularly in conjunction with Churchill's already somewhat stylized dialogue that uses a lot of fragments or half-completed thoughts, rather than fully formed sentences.

Nevertheless, de la Fuente gives an impressive performance as three very different variations on the same man. He changes both body posture and speech patterns while also infusing his portrayals -- particularly for his first two characters -- with subtle shadings of emotion that complicates the men's relationship to Salter, and gives an added poignancy to their interactions.

Saito starts out a bit stiffly, but gradually warms to his part, even finding the humor in certain lines, such as Salter's repeated insistence that he and his boys could make some money from the doctors and scientists who cloned his son. Saito is also quite touching in the play's final scene, as Salter meets one of the clones whom he had not previously known.

The production is only an hour in length, played out in five tautly structured scenes. Churchill raises some provocative issues, particularly regarding the potential for achieving redemption. "I did some bad things. I deserve to suffer," says Salter. "I did some better things. I'd like recognition." The playwright refuses to provide easy solutions to Salter's predicament, but A Number -- particularly when realized as well as it is here -- remains a fascinating study of second chances and their consequences.