A Number by Caryl Churchill. Directed by Byam Stevens. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
"Now I can't make it right anymore."
You are in a room with two men. The younger is the son of the older. The older is the father in more ways than one. He knows a number of ways and they don't all relate to the young man who stands nervously before him. A number can refer to many things here: the years they have been together, perhaps, or an age or even how many times the young man, or someone like him, has been in this same situation. The older man is Salter; the younger is Bernard, or rather Bernard One. They are meeting, and you are watching them, in The Twilight Zone.
That, at least, is the feeling you get in Caryl Churchill's play, "A Number," which is now on stage at the Chester Theatre in Chester, Massachusetts. This is a very honest play about lying, liars and lies themselves. The author wants us to grasp the ramifications of the small lies we tell to protect small truths that could blow the lid off of sanity and leave behind only chaos.
Chaos is what Salter experiences when twenty men receive a letter explaining that they are part of a greater number of men who are identical in every way due to an experiment in cloning. His son Bernard is one of those men, although he believes that he is either the original of the experiment or perhaps just the first one. As he questions his father, Salter, what becomes clearer to him is the fact that his father cannot tell a truth without telling a lie.
Churchill's writing in this opening scene (one of five) is merely brilliant. Pulling away the cloth of deceit she reveals story after story as either a turgid truth or a blissful falsehood. These men are clearly related - everything including speech patterns tell us so. In the second scene when Bernard Two appears on the scene we are met by an altered Salter. His speech pattern mirrors this cloned edition with some of Bernard Two's own relevant style. In the following two scenes we meet these young men again and finally, in the fifth scene we meet Michael Black who is not a fusion of the former two "sons" but rather an amalgam of the best of both.
Byam Stevens has done wonders with this play which only runs sixty-two minutes in a single act. He has used his crew to execute avista costume and hair changes for both actors. He has utilized a tiny playing space with a certain classical staging. He plays on the circle created by a table and three chairs, one of which seems extraneous until a chilling moment in the play uses it to great effect. Stevens has done everything right it seems and that goes especially for the casting of the play.
Jay Stratton's three characterizations are exquisite. Where one threatens, one acts and where one philosophizes another maneuvers. Not great on British accents, Stratton indicates rather than imitates and what he comes up with works perfectly for this play. His character is generally always the same, looks pretty much the same in spite of costume and hair changes, but his attitude alters markedly from scene to scene. He is awkward in stating anything in two scenes while being definitivelty decisive in two others, also mean and just on the borderline of evil. When his character shifts gears totally near the end he becomes an internationally-oriented elitist snob, but not without charm and an attractive sensibility. As each version of his character deals with what Salter needs and reveals the man he should have been becomes more a reality. Very nice work indeed.
Salter is played by Larry John Meyers who brings what appears to be a natural naivete to the role. He faces each challenge with an open-faced stare, then a calmly related fact, then an apologetic stance. His reactions to demands for honesty are always a triangle of resolution. Meyers does this so well it is as though he comes to it naturally. The rock on which the play is built and the hollow wall off which bounces the demands of three similar men is Salter as played by Meyers. Frankly I don't see how this part could be played in any other way than as Meyers does it and does it so very well.
The reflecting surface of the set are provided by designer David Towlun who has tried to indicate that all is not what it seems and that reflections in life are meaningless unless the mirrors are well placed. Lara Dubin has lit the show well and Elizabeth Pangburn's costumes truly help to define all four men.
The play opens with questions and it closes with more of them. Answers here may not be quite what they seem. At the end, as at the beginning, you are left in this twilight space, this zone of near-madness with more to think about than you can imagine.
Larry John Meyers as Salter and Jay Stratton as Bernard 1; photo: Rick Teller
Stratton as Bernard 2 and Meyers; photo: Rick Teller
Meyers as Salter and Stratton as Michael Black; photo: Rick Teller
A Number plays through August 10 at The Chester Theatre in the Town Hall located just off Route 20 in Chester, MA. For information and tickets call the box office at 413-354-7771 or go on line to www.chestertheatre.org.