Lyric Presents a Surprisingly Good "Number"

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"A Number"
Book by Caryl Churchill; directed by Spiro Veloudos;  scenic design by Skip Curtiss; lighting design by Robert Cordella; original music and sound design by Robert Cordella

Salter, Steve McConnell
Bernard, Lewis D. Wheeler
Bernard, Lewis D. Wheeler
Michael Black, Lewis D. Wheeler

Performances: Now Through November 19
Box Office: The Lyric Stage Company, (617)-437-7172,

It begins in the midst of the confusion and madness, with no real history and no context to speak of. The only introduction is an eerie techno music that features violins, disjointed, but beautiful, playing as the lights rise on a set that is marked by its shades of grey. In the middle of a conversation between Salter and Bernard, it begins.


In this beginning lies the brilliance of Caryl Churchill's A Number. She immediately draws the viewer into the nurture versus nature debate as well as the ethics of cloning with this intense tale of the complex relationship between Salter and Bernard, which is as complex as the ethical issues it deals with. Salter loved his son Bernard, but in a desperate attempt for a second chance at parenting, sent him away at a young age and had a genetic clone made, whom he also named Bernard. Now an adult, Bernard learns of this cloning and finds out that he also has a number of genetically identical brothers who were cloned illegally. Churchill wades through murky waters as her stance on the ethical issues unravels, but by the play's conclusion, one thing is certain—Churchill is not afraid to take a stand, and whether you agree with her or not, her masterful writing and attention to detail ensure that "A Number" leaves an impression long after the house lights rise.   


Perhaps the greatest strength of Churchill's script is the character development; it is as complex as the issues the show tackles. Churchill brings to life Salter, the ethically bankrupt father who doesn't realize his mistakes until too late. She humanizes the original Bernard, who is perhaps the most malicious and evil character in the play, and makes you feel for him and understand why he is the way he is. Churchill plays on the naïveté and innocence of the clone Bernard to present not only his character but clearly display his relationship with Salter, and how it differs from the original Bernard's relationship with the father. Finally, she beautifully paints Michael Black's apathy and indifference in both his own life and his brief relationship with Salter. With each character, Churchill presents a different view of cloning, a different reaction to cloning, and a different experience as a result of cloning. And with each character, Churchill draws you into the tale and forces you to think about the show, about the issues, and about the ethics involved. A Number isn't just another show you can watch and then forget—it sticks with you, and forces you to question everything you believe, whether you want to or not.


It's hard to imagine that such a psychologically and intellectually stimulating work features only two actors, but that is the case. Fortunately, both McConnell and Wheeler have the acting chops to pull it off. McConnell, whose previous credits include The Judas Kiss, Antigone, Oedipus Rex, and Uncle Vanya, presents the perfect balance of moral bankruptcy and hopelessness to give Salter an added punch on stage—you're repulsed by his actions, but you can't help but feel his desperation and pity him. Salter isn't just a character; he could be your friend, your brother, or your neighbor, and McConnell's depiction drives that point home.


The cornerstone of Churchill's ethical argument, though, lies in the three characters played by Wheeler. Very rarely does a script call for one actor to play three leading roles, but in this case, the result is sheer theatrical bliss. Wheeler perfectly amplifies the differences between Bernard, Bernard, and Michael Black, and shows such versatility between the three roles it's hard to believe that one actor is capable of such range. Wheeler is capable though, and gives credence to Churchill's story. His combination of perfectly fitting vocal inflections, detailed facial expressions, personalized character traits, and utter passion for each role ensures that you will be gripped by his performance from his first line to his last.


Unfortunately, Spiro Veloudos's directorial decisions are almost enough to stop the show dead in its tracks. Without such a well written script and talented actors, it very well may have flopped. The blocking is at times painfully awkward to watch and seems more an attempt to focus the actors to the different sides of the audience rather than natural and strong stage direction. Having an audience on three sides of the stage is difficult to work with, but more was lost in having McConnell and Wheeler turn upstage or towards a specific side of the audience than would have been is Veloudos chose a solid directorial vision and stuck with it. There were times when so much was lost in both performances because of these choices, and it really is a detriment to such talented actors. The audience will adapt to what is happening on stage—the directorial vision should not.


Churchill is a playwright known for the social commentary in her plays; however, she rarely writes shows around male characters, which is what makes "A Number" an even more intriguing theatrical adventure. She hits the nail on the head in providing a thought-provoking show that centers on rather controversial topics and ensures that her work is more than mere entertainment. Despite the weak directorial vision, there are still a number of reasons to see Lyric Stage's A Number, so be sure to catch it before it closes—Churchill's drama is just too good to miss.   

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From This Author Olena Ripnick

Olena Ripnick is a Boston University journalism student and freelance writer whose introduction to the performing arts took place when she was cast as Gretel (read more...)