2022 Capital Fringe Review: ‘A Number’ by Caryl Churchill

A tantalizing “what if?”: a dramatized thought experiment about the interpersonal consequences of human cloning.

Caryl Churchill is one of the most provocative and original playwrights in the English language, and fans of her work will not want to miss her one-act A Number, being given a crisp and stimulating Capital Fringe production by The Edge of the Universe Players 2, smartly directed by Stephen Jarrett. Written in 2002 when animal cloning was in the headlines, A Number is a tantalizing “what if?”: a dramatized thought experiment about the interpersonal consequences of human cloning.

The play gives almost no scientific detail about how human cloning would actually be achieved, but we get a fascinating earful of what being cloned could mean to the cloned. In particular we hear from three sons who are genetically identical but have different chronological ages and distinctly dissimilar personalities and have only recently learned their laboratory origin story. We are led to understand there are “a number” of other such cloned sons now alive elsewhere — no one knows how many.

The three sons (each played appealingly by the chameleonlike Jacob Yeh) have sequential scenes with the man who genetically is their father (the reliably compelling David Bryan Jackson). Dressed comfortably in a cardigan but clearly discomfited, he is just now finding out how his woefully misbegotten idea to duplicate his lost first son has gone dreadfully awry.

Though Churchill places the time “in the near future” she specifies no location, but the generically beige kitchen designed by Simone Schneeberg — checkered tablecloth, two wood chairs, a plain cupboard — serves the human-relationship stories well. And eerily atonal inter-scene music by Steve Antosca — wind chimes, scraped piano strings — sustains a sci-fi vibe.

Churchill’s text is a flurry of staccato unpunctuated fragments, and both actors parry and thrust their lines in arresting interrelated rhythms, such that as we listen we can piece together not only the sense of what they are really saying to each other but also the depth of feeling each brings to the table.

Jacob Yeh and David Bryan Jackson in ‘A Number’ by Caryl Churchill. Photo by DJ Corey Photography.

Costumed tellingly by Lauren K. Lambie, Yeh delineates the three clones well: The one who wears specs and a vest and speaks like a Brit is profoundly anxious and troubled to learn that his “uniqueness” has been “damaged.” The next one, who wears a black leather jacket and speaks like a Cockney bloke, is full of menace and murderous rage. The mild-mannered third one wearing a professorial sports jacket and sounding middle-American is quite content to be a copy, though he seems to have zero individuality.

At times the script can seem tendentious and the story a little static, but that’s no fault of the two fine actors, who consistently keep the electricity on stage alive and the moral ideas in the play aloft.

 

Running Time: 50 minutes, with no intermission.

A Number by Caryl Churchill plays three more times — July 22, 2022, at 5:45 pm; July 23 at 9 pm;  and July 24 at 12:30 pm — presented by The Edge of the Universe Players 2 performing at HOME RULE – Formerly Washington Sports Club, 3270 M Street NW, Washington, DC. For tickets ($15), go online.

COVID Safety: The audience is to remain masked for the show. The mask needs to cover your mouth and nose the whole time. Proof of vaccination and ID are checked before entry.

Genre: Drama
Age appropriateness: Recommended for Children 13 + older

Director: Stephen Jarrett
Playwright: Caryl Churchill
Performers: Jacob Yeh, David Bryan Jackson
Composer: Steve Antosca

Salter: David Bryan Jackson
Three of his innumerable sons: Jacob Yeh

Stage management by JJ Hersh
Set design by Simone Schneeberg
Costume design by Lauren K. Lambie
Music by Steve Antosca
Casting by Naomi Robin

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John Stoltenberg is executive editor of DC Theater Arts. He writes both reviews and his Magic Time! column, which he named after that magical moment between life and art just before a show begins. In it, he explores how art makes sense of life—and vice versa—as he reflects on meanings that matter in the theater he sees. Decades ago, in college, John began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile, his own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then John’s life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction essays, articles, and books and had a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg.

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