Five characters, two actors and one devastatingly uncomfortable premise – these are the ingredients of PlayMakers Repertory Company’s first production of the 2011-12 season.
And with a powerful and satisfying punch, the two actors that bring the story of “A Number” to life deliver the kind of thoughtful work that makes PlayMakers a force for theatrical creativity.
Time: Friday through Sunday at 7:30 p.m., with a 2 p.m. Sunday matinee
Location: Kenan Theatre
Play Makers Repertory Company
Sept. 7, 7:30 p.m.
Dive Verdict: 4.5 of 5 stars
British playwright Caryl Churchill’s provocative script offers a kind of “what if,” showing the surprising results of a father’s decision to clone his young son after his wife passes away.
The reasons for the cloning are complex, but the action opens when the father learns that his single clone has been duplicated an unspecified number of times by the scientist who first performed the procedure 35 years earlier.
Now, facing his adult son across the kitchen table, the father must come to terms with the choices he made that led to the clones.
To say more about the tightly-wound plot would ruin more than a few dramatic twists. The play is simple and open-ended, and in the hands of director Mike Donahue, becomes a nuanced portrait of an unusual father and son — and son, and son, and so on — relationship.
Although guest artist Josh Barrett has the more difficult role, playing three different versions of the ‘same’ person, PlayMakers regular Ray Dooley is the emotional core of the production.
As he interacts with different iterations of his son, Dooley’s character teases out the awkward sensation of having to talk to a man who looks the same and sounds the same, but is ultimately a completely different person.
Dooley is moody and restrained, and as he reveals more about his character’s motivation, he holds the audience’s attention with a deceptively lax gaze. The audience won’t like this father, but they will come to respect his raw honesty.
Barrett’s tri-part role asks a great deal of the younger actor, and Barrett’s cosmetic costume changes mask deeper emotional shifts as he moves from one version of the son to the next.
It is unfortunate that Barrett is given a larger chunk of the quintessentially British phrases present in Churchill’s script, which often fall flat on the floor of the very American kitchen.
Where Barrett most succeeds is in his body language. The actor clearly understands how movement influences emotion, and he carries himself in three markedly different ways as he explores the boundaries of each clone character.
The play is at its best when Dooley and Barrett call an emotional truce and share quiet moments as father and son — drinking sodas, eating coffee cake, telling jokes. As they shift into bitter arguments and philosophical musings on the nature of self, their camaraderie shines through and carries the action forward.
The kitchen table that forms the heart of the set effectively evokes an American home without giving too much background — time and place are moot — and the sharp angles and elevated chairs that frame the table give the entire stage an uneasy feeling suitable to the subject matter.
“A Number” is not a perfect play. But it is an exciting opening foray into a PlayMakers season that could stand some buzz.
For that, it is not to be missed.
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