Sam Shepard in A Number 
 
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Sam Shepard in A Number
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Do you believe in second chances? Salter made some parenting mistakes when his son, Bernard, was young. With his wife already dead, he hit upon a unique solution to try again: He'd have Bernard cloned and start over. The acclaimed British playwright Caryl Churchill's latest work, A Number, uses this sci-fi premise as the basis for a compelling human drama. The New York premiere production of the play stars Sam Shepard as Salter, marking the esteemed playwright's return (as an actor) to the New York stage after more than 30 years.

Churchill's use of language is very spare, with characters talking in fragments and half-completed sentences. While it's true that people often talk this way in real life, there's a stylized quality to the verbal exchanges that heightens the dramatic tension of the play. When Salter finally does let loose with a confessional rant to one of his sons, it's jolting. Additionally, Salter often speaks in half-truths or outright lies, forcing audience members to re-evaluate what they have already heard as more information becomes available.

As the play begins, Bernard (Dallas Roberts) has just learned that there are "a number" of clones of him -- maybe even as many as 20 -- running around. Salter assures Bernard he's the original, but he's lying. This fact is made clear by the return of the original Bernard (also played by Roberts) in the next scene. Of course, the two Bernards are unlike each other in every way except for physical appearance. The first one we see is a good-natured jumble of nerves, whereas the one who returns to visit his estranged father is a bitter individual who moves about like a cat and speaks with quiet menace.

While obviously contributing to the nature/nurture debate, A Number also raises provocative questions about the capacity for love and forgiveness. Salter has managed to produce two genetically identical sons with completely different personalities, yet his parenting skills are still in question. The discarded son has every right to be angry but so does the one whom Salter raised. And then there's the question: Can Salter atone for his actions? "I did some bad things. I deserve to suffer," he declares. "I did some better things. I'd like recognition."

As played by Shepard, Salter is quiet and withholding with both sons; love and affection are there, certainly, but also a reluctance to really communicate. Director James Macdonald has Shepard seated on a couch for almost the entire play, so it's a good thing that the actor is a captivating stage presence. Salter's unwillingness to move more than a few inches on the couch says volumes about just how close he is to the Bernards. But in the final scene -- when Salter meets yet another clone, this time named Michael (Roberts once again) -- there's a suggestion that he may have changed.

As the three variations of Salter's progeny, Dallas Roberts is terrific. He makes each character distinctly different without resorting to caricature. The pain beneath the original Bernard's sullen persona is evident; so is the fear and uncertainty of the other Bernard, who is forced to question the truth of everything he thought he knew about himself. Michael is a completely different creation and his attitude brings out a different side of Salter, previously unseen.

Dallas Roberts and Sam Shepard in A Number
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Dallas Roberts and Sam Shepard in A Number
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Scenic designer Eugene Lee has completely transformed the New York Theatre Workshop space, ripping out the existing seating and replacing it with sharply raked stadium seating that the designer claims was inspired by a photograph of a 19th-century medical operating theater. The new seats surround the tiny playing area on three sides, giving the production both an increased focus and a feeling of claustrophobia.

As for set pieces, there's only a brown leather couch and a single standing lamp. The play's primary illumination, however, comes from an enormous flood light positioned above the couch. (Edward Pierce is the lighting designer.) Shepard, who never leaves the stage, remains in the same outfit for the entire play, while costume designer Gabriel Berry gives Roberts a new ensemble for each scene, helping to convey the passage of time and to indicate which role the actor is playing.

The production is flawlessly paced; despite the fact that the characters spend so much time sitting on a couch, it never feels static. There's plenty of humor, too, as Churchill also explores the comic possibilities of the play's circumstances. A Number runs just over an hour, yet it's more satisfying than many plays twice its length.