‘A Number’ Is Infinitely Thought Provoking (5 Stars)

‘A Number’ – Written by Caryl Churchill. Directed by Clay Hopper. Presented by New Repertory Theatre, Arsenal Center for the Arts, 321 Arsenal Street, Watertown, MA through November 1.

Bernard, played by Nael Nacer, is shaken to discover that he has been cloned; indeed, there are “a number” of his selves among the living. As he confronts Salter, his emotionally distant father (Dale Place), he is frightened and dismayed to learn several other truths, one of them being that he is not the original – he was cloned after an older brother, also named Bernard. Bernard 1, Salter tells him, died in a car crash, along with their mother. As the second Bernard questions his existence, he makes the chilling discovery that Salter is also not who he has claimed to be.

I don’t want to give too much away here, because I want you to see this play and experience the unfolding of events and characters for yourself, as well as two star turns from Nacer and Place. Nacer, who plays three characters in the piece with stunning dexterity, runs the gamut from fearful neurotic to fearsome psychopath, with a contented fellow in between. Place captures the love, hostility and angst that’s coupled with feckless and irresponsible behavior. The two actors play off one another nimbly, at times sympathetically, overlapping dialogue and finishing each other’s sentences. The emotions between them are raw and intense. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such seamless, high stakes performances on a Boston stage.

Clay Hopper’s direction gave the play a very organic feel – I never felt like I was watching blocked actors; their movements were consistent with their intentions. The actors were also not mic’d, which made me almost giddy with relief – unless you’re in the Wang Center, mics are a distraction. Cristina Todesco’s futuristic set meshed perfectly with the dystopian theme. Done in metallic grays and blacks, with minimal chairs and a table, the set held four large columns, which gave off occasional electronic hisses.

Churchill raises a lot of questions with “A Number”. Is one’s nature influenced by environment, or are we born the way we are? Are we wired to love and connect with those we consider family? Can one be moral and righteous after committing terrible deeds? What are the ethics of cloning?

There was a talkback after the performance that I attended. Normally I hate talkbacks – I feel like they take you out of the emotional experience of the play. My husband also hates talkbacks, but when the play ended we both wanted to stay, as the conversation afterwards was sure to be interesting and provocative. Most of the audience stayed as well. We were not disappointed, as none of us wanted to leave the theater. For more info, go to:http://www.newrep.org/productions/a-number/