Two years after its New York Theatre Workshop debut, Caryl Churchill's A Number is remembered primarily as the play that brought actor/playwright Sam Shepard back to the stage after 30 years. And Shepard's return may well remain what's most memorable about this one-act drama because, even in an excellent production now on view at Stray Cat Theatre, Churchill's play is something of an also-ran.
Despite its shortcomings, director Ron May and a strong cast and crew have made the very most of A Number, which asks the rather mundane question, "What if you found out you weren't really you?" Unfortunately, Churchill's story is rarely elevated above terse family drama as she slowly reveals the truth about Salter (David Barker), a man who, some years earlier, sent his young son (Benjamin Monrad) away and attempted a fresh start with a newly minted clone of the boy. There's much to be made of the misuse of genetic engineering; of the ways in which fathers and sons fail at communication; of the paranoid fantasy that things aren't all that they appear. But Churchill only comes close, and never really arrives at a conclusion about any of these.
As the now-grown son and his various clones, Monrad turns in a trio of rangy performances that are helped enormously by David J. Castellano's costumes, which tell as much about these young men as Churchill's dialogue. A lesser actor might have paced or flailed or torn at his hair, but Barker leaves scenery-chewing to amateurs and conveys fear and apprehension with a fluttering glance, a facial twitch, a tightened jaw. His very physical interpretation of a troubled man in crisis infuses the play with a suspense and vitality that the script is frankly lacking. The story only briefly reaches any real dramatic height when Barker plays his mad-as-hell scene late in the 70-minute play.
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The rest of the time, May keeps the tension high yet subtle, and uses the tall, angled mirrors of Castellano's Spartan set design to comment on the various literal and figurative duplicities of the characters. One hopes May will rethink the hokey, hyper-dramatic incidental music that ends each scene, although it's certainly too late for him to ask his actors to stop aping the David Mamet-like cadence they use while reciting Churchill's overlapping dialogue. Like Mamet's better plays, this one is a study in contrasts; unlike them, it leaves us wanting more. The result is a near-miss saved by some good acting and better-than-average direction.