By Elaine Liner
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Pick A Number as the best new short play about a provocative subject. The writing sends off sparks of genius, the plot twists shock. More happens in the scant 65 minutes of British playwright Caryl Churchill's one-act gem, now onstage in a Southwest premiere at Undermain Theatre, than other plays manage in double or triple the time.
The action starts with a tense conversation already under way between Salter, a man in his 60s, and his son Bernard, 35.
Bernard: A number
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Salter: You mean
Bernard: A number of them, of us, a considerable
Bernard: 10 or 20
Salter: Didn't you ask?
Bernard: I got the impression
Salter: Why didn't you ask?
Bernard: I didn't think of asking.
Salter, it is revealed, has salted the earth with a number of sons, much to the surprise of the young man who thinks he's the first and only. Bernard's brothers are all the same, genetically speaking. They are clones, products of a "mad scientist" who harvested enough "scraping of cells" from Salter's firstborn son to create another, at Salter's request. That is the Bernard we see when the lights go up. But the scientist didn't stop with one. There are more. And they keep turning up unexpectedly on Salter's doorstep looking for explanations.
So the play is about a man who thought he had one son (or at most, two) but finds out there might be "millions." Salter, played by Undermain stalwart Bruce DuBose with his usual cool detachment, gets a grilling by his son Bernard, portrayed with a bit more fire by Cameron Cobb. Bernard demands to know the circumstances of his birth and the whereabouts of the mother he was told died in a car crash decades before. How was he conceived? Why are there others like him?
Everything Bernard, the perfect son, thought to be true about his life is a lie. He wants to meet his fraternal DNA-bors. Pretty soon he does and so does Salter and so do we. This is where it gets good.
Exit Bernard and enter Bernard numero uno, five years older than his genetic twin and not thrilled to be drawn into this father-and-clone reunion. This elder, less saintly Bernard, a violent tough with black hair gelled into a defiant swoop, also is played by Cobb. Later, the actor returns as another, much gentler version named Michael Black.
This attack of the clones is the gimmick that provides the centrifugal force of the play. Who will he be next? How is one not like the other? And which son will Salter like best? Most intriguing of all, which man will die as a result of his biological father's selfish decision to clone a son and raise him his way, away from his mother?
Director Katherine Owens, Undermain's artistic director, allows Churchill's words and not the two actors to do most of the fancy dancing. The actors sit still, barely gesturing, rarely taking more than a step or two from center stage. A Number calls on the audience to pay rapt attention. The turns in plot emerge gradually through vague illusions and one startling announcement at the end. For such a short play, nothing happens too quickly.
This play is not as tough to decode as, say, Pinter, but Churchill, author of Cloud Nine, among others, writes dialogue that can sound obtuse and repetitive:
Salter: I know. I'm sorry.
Bernard No. 2: I know you're sorry I'm not
Salter: I know
B2: I'm not trying to make you say sorry
Salter: I know, I just am
B2: I know
Salter: I just am sorry.But he's not really sorry. Salter is more interested in cashing in from a lawsuit against the hospital for cooking up clones like they were Krispy Kremes.
A Number does a number on ideas of personal identity and uniqueness, as well as ethical issues and medical advances in human reproduction. Only a few times does Churchill lose focus, letting one of the cloned kids veer into an anti-war rant that erupts out of nowhere toward the end.
Undermain's two actors are technically proficient--Cobb shifts among his three clones with slight physical and vocal adjustments--but they don't connect with any strong father-son chemistry. DuBose expresses little feeling for any of the sons, but that arm's-length style of acting is an Undermain trademark. The actors are also younger than the roles are written. DuBose doesn't look anywhere near 60, and Cobb sure is baby-faced for 35.
This is one of Undermain's nicest-looking productions, however. The elegant set designed by Bryan Wofford makes its own visual statement about repetition and sameness. On the walls of Salter's earth-toned living room hang six identical canvases, each painted the same flat brown. What differences there are become evident only on closer inspection.
To give some idea of the antic silliness of it all, phase No. 1 involves a tribute to WKRP in Cincinnati star Loni Anderson. Phase No. 6 is "Plagiarizing Shakespeare," No. 12 is "Putt-putt golf" and No. 20 is "The effect of a man's attention span on a woman's sanity" (this comes sometime after the "I do" stage and features man's favorite phallic substitute, the remote). Abraham Lincoln (played by Johnny Sequenzia) serves as emcee. Socrates (Brian Witkowicz) offers contraceptive advice.
In the two hours of Tab A, Slot B, some of the bits go zing and others go zoing, but it averages at least one good laugh every 90 seconds. The performers' zest for joke-mongering and their willingness to make absolute fools of themselves put over even the weaker material. Lead couple Matt Lyle and Julie Reinagel are onstage every minute, bopping and flopping over each other like old-timey slapstick comics.
This troupe has a cute knack for knowing how some words fall on the ear. "Are you smoking a tampon?" Lincoln asks Socrates (turns out it's a nicotine inhaler). They work in "spork," "muffin" and "pants" (the word no Letterman Top 10 List would be without). They toss in random references to Voltaire, Mommie Dearest and The Princess Bride. Oedipus (Jeremy Whiteker) comes onstage and says, "I've had to go into Freudian analysis. Do you get the irony there?"
Slide Tab A into Slot B and out comes the funny. Go see it.