You don't hear so much these days about Dolly the Sheep, but when Caryl Churchill's "A Number" was first performed in 2002 (starring Daniel Craig, actually), cloning was a hotly debated issue. First kittens, the widespread worries went, then people.
Churchill's taut, two-character play (it's only 70 minutes long) is partly a cautionary riff on the dangers of an unscrupulous someone getting hold of our genes and making more of us — although some of us can't see much external value in that — and creating a situation where we might one day walk down the street and run into ourselves. But it's mostly an exploration of how human cloning might explode the natural bonds upon which our lives are built.
Watching Karen Kessler's new production for the Backstage Theatre Company — an itinerant company currently working at the Building Stage in the theatrically underserved West Loop — one is struck anew by how much more comfortable we've become over the past decade with the intrusion of technology in human reproduction. I'd argue that we're also now less worried — perhaps foolishly — that labs will suddenly start churning out folks for other folks to buy at Wal-Mart. Thus "A Number" does not so much feel like a cutting-edge drama as almost a period piece. Which does not mean it is without interest or potency.
Churchill's tightly wound but feverish play begins with a father (played by Patrick Blashill) being confronted by an only son (Tony Bozzuto) who has just discovered that he is not as "only" as he thought. The play's conceit, of course, allows the actor playing the son to play not only himself but his clones, and, as the drama progresses, things move in that dramatic direction. To dad's horror.
With a stark but intriguing design from Angela M. Campos at its center, Kessler's production is a visually classy, if slightly underpaced, affair. As a man confronted with a crippling explosion of his parental identity, Blashill offers an emotional and, at times, rather moving performance. Churchill clearly intends this culpable character to undergo an agonizing discovery in the classic tragic fashion, and you feel that here. Wisely, Blashill keeps things very much in the present tense. You're right there with him as he realizes that he has just destroyed the very thing that matters most to his beloved son: his individuality.
Bozzuto, though, has the much tougher assignment, playing three separate characters who happen to share exactly the same face. Bozzuto is an appealing, likeable and spontaneous actor, but his young men aren't as sharply distinct as would be ideal, nor do he and Kessler fully show us what the trauma of suddenly losing his sense of self is really costing him. This is a life-and-death change in circumstances, as things turn out, yet the stakes in this production don't fully rise as they should.
But I'll say this. As a quick amuse bouche before dinner at one of those clone-free West Loop eateries, this will at least get you and your date, or you and yourself, talking about matters of substance.
When: Through Feb. 11
Where: The Building Stage, 412 N. Carpenter St.
Running time: 1 hour, 10 minutes
Tickets: 312-773-BTSC or backstagetheatrecompany.orgCopyright © 2015, RedEye