Review: Writers Theatre goes a cloning in Caryl Churchill's unsettling 'A Number'

 
 
Updated 4/3/2019 10:42 AM
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  • Bernard (Nate Burger), left, seethes with anger and resentment as he's questioned by his distant father (William Brown) in Caryl Churchill's "A Number" at Writers Theatre in Glencoe.

    Bernard (Nate Burger), left, seethes with anger and resentment as he's questioned by his distant father (William Brown) in Caryl Churchill's "A Number" at Writers Theatre in Glencoe. Courtesy of Michael Brosilow/Writers Theatre

  • Salter (William Brown) tries to get Bernard (Nate Burger) to share something specific and unique about himself in Caryl Churchill's "A Number" at Writers Theatre in Glencoe.

    Salter (William Brown) tries to get Bernard (Nate Burger) to share something specific and unique about himself in Caryl Churchill's "A Number" at Writers Theatre in Glencoe. Courtesy of Michael Brosilow/Writers Theatre

"A Number" -- ★ ★ ★ ½

"A Number" is far from the only sci-fi piece pondering the dire implications of genetic cloning. But Caryl Churchill's 2002 British drama, now receiving an unsettling revival at Writers Theatre in Glencoe, feels especially timely and relevant.

Menacing doppelgängers are in vogue again thanks to Jordan Peele's hit horror film "Us." And every time dogs are mentioned in "A Number," how can you not think about Barbra Streisand going public last year about her pricey decision to clone one of her prized pups?

But all these pop-culture coincidences are bonuses to the dark and conflicted heart of "A Number," where the battles and resentments between parents and children take on a universal appeal despite the futuristic pretext. Churchill realistically chisels in the hypotheticals of cloning to make her fictionalized world of genetically designed children into a chilling foreseeable future.

Salter (William Brown), left, and his estranged son, Bernard (Nate Burger), try to hash out their legal options in Caryl Churchill's "A Number" at Writers Theatre in Glencoe.
Salter (William Brown), left, and his estranged son, Bernard (Nate Burger), try to hash out their legal options in Caryl Churchill's "A Number" at Writers Theatre in Glencoe. - Courtesy of Michael Brosilow/Writers Theatre

"A Number" rotates around a wealthy and distant father, Salter (William Brown), and his estranged adult son(s), Bernard (Nate Burger). At the top of the play, they're arguing because they've just learned that a late scientist cloned multiple versions of Bernard without permission of either father or son.

The crisis initially brings the two together. But then uncomfortable origin stories and nature/nurture questions get dredged up -- especially when an earlier version of Bernard arrives to confront Salter.

In customary cryptic Churchill fashion, the audience has to piece together fragments of familial history and falsehoods. "A Number" maintains a captivating blend of mystery and misanthropic family drama throughout its jam-packed 65-minute running time.

Director Robin Witt's Americanized production is sharp and smart as it zeros in on the human emotions of these pathological characters.

Nate Burger gets to be much showier as Salter's mild and malevolent offspring, and he's ably assisted by the contemporary costumes of designer Mieka van der Ploeg to delineate different versions of Bernard.

Bernard (Nate Burger), left, is horrified to learn of some shocking family history from his distant father, Salter (William Brown), in "A Number" at Writers Theatre in Glencoe.
Bernard (Nate Burger), left, is horrified to learn of some shocking family history from his distant father, Salter (William Brown), in "A Number" at Writers Theatre in Glencoe. - Courtesy of Michael Brosilow/Writers Theatre

As Salter, William Brown is more of an enigma. Like his character, he keeps an emotional distance from his son(s), though I would have liked more despair and regret to creep through his stiff facade by the end.

Set designer Courtney O'Neill subtly works in science vs. nature symbols via molecular sculptures and a cattle skin throw rug (perhaps a reference to a 2005 "This American Life" episode about a cloned Brahman bull). And both lighting designer Brandon Wardell and sound designer Thomas Dixon skillfully combine to create a sense of unease between scenes.

"A Number" is economically and unapologetically short. But it leaves audiences with much to digest and debate.

• • •

Location: Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe, (847) 242-6000 or writerstheatre.org

Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 3 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 6 p.m. Sunday (no evening shows April 21, 28 and May 12); extra Wednesday matinees April 17, 24 and May 8; through June 9

Running time: About 65 minutes without intermission

Tickets: $35-$80

Parking: On the street

Rating: Some adult language and the menace of violence

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