The father’s name is Salter, and he has indeed been salting the earth: When Caryl Churchill’s taut, snakily written, 65-minute puzzle play A Number starts, he’s just been confronted by his son Bernard with the news that Bernard is one of “a number” of identical test-tube clones of Bernard who have been manufactured—without Salter’s knowledge, or so he claims. But Salter’s claims aren’t all they seem: Subsequent scenes bring other versions of Bernard into the picture, and Salter’s explanations of how and why they came to exist get increasingly contradictory and progressively less satisfactory. An offstage act of violence—being specific here would unravel Churchill’s paradox-laden contrivance—is the linchpin of the brief play’s action, but Salter’s passive-defensive behavior is its central mystery. Emotionally ungiving and taciturn as well as dishonest, he seems the last person alive who, with his wife dead and his biological son seen as somehow unsatisfactory, would seek to have an identical reproduction manufactured.
Maybe it’s an allegory about power, or God the Father, or nepotism in hiring. Whatever it is, Churchill’s keeping mum. Fascinatingly written, in twisty, crisscrossing, unfinished sentences, A Number hides its information in tiny nuggets of fact hedged about by deceits and evasions, giving us as little sense of the world around Salter and his sons as of his motives in generating them. All the ethical and moral issues involved in cloning are touched on, lightly, but never seem to be at the core of the gnomic event. That’s the enigma of the father-son connection, underscored by James MacDonald’s production, in a nearly bare semicircle at the bottom of a steeply raked, curving makeshift auditorium that makes the actors look like battling bantams in a cockpit, seen from above. Dallas Roberts gives a skillful account of the multiple sons, and Sam Shepard, looking infuriatingly handsome and healthy, is just the actor you want for maximum taciturnity.