Here's a dilemma Miss Manners has yet to address: If you were invited to the wedding of your clone, would you be entitled to a seat with the relatives? And what of the thorny question of a patent? How do you broach with your father the delicate topic of whether you were the prototype -- or just one of the knockoffs?
We turn for guidance on this occasion to Caryl Churchill, who ponders in barbed and spooky fashion the wild issue of assembly-line identity in "A Number." This hour-long play has been exquisitely mounted by Studio Theatre and director Joy Zinoman, who again dips rewardingly into the wellspring of emotional truth in one of Churchill's harsh, Pinteresque works.
Zinoman, director two seasons ago of a powerful rendition of Churchill's "Far Away," has also found a marvelously simpatico pair of actors, Ted van Griethuysen and Tom Story. They play the parent and his multiple children in a drama that is as much about the fragile bonds between fathers and sons as it is about the creation by science of ethically challenging relationships.
Story has a breakout turn -- make that turns -- in his portrayal of the troubled offspring of a man who, for contemptible reasons that only slowly come into focus, has turned to the petri dish for solace and companionship. An actor whose best part locally until now has been the bumpkin in Shakespeare Theatre Company's "The Rivals," Story finds delicious subtleties in this dream job, breathing life into a gallery of genetic brothers who learn that their births are both more and less special than they ever could have imagined.
The production thrusts us into the home -- British, we assume, by virtue of the accents -- of van Griethuysen's Salter, a greasy spoon of a man who is visited by the agitated son he's raised. Story's Bernard, it seems, has been apprised by some sort of research hospital that most of what he believed about his origins is a fiction. As he cautiously interrogates his father about the details of the experiment, the depth of his anguish is reflected in Churchill's oft-broken syntax: Bernard's suspicion, he allows, is that he was not the number one son, but a clone, one of "a number."
"I got the impression," Bernard relates, skittishly, to his father, "there was this batch and we were all in it."
Churchill approaches the matter as both grave and comic. Is it the lies that Salter has told that most disturb Bernard, or the idea that he's not one, or two, or even three-of-a-kind in the universe, that he was cultured like bacteria and turned out as one of a series?
The balance of torment shifts ever more painfully to Salter as he's forced to confront other Bernards; the guaranteeing of the continuation of a family line has been carried to an absurd, even dangerous extreme. Story is simply outstanding in the mechanics of his role, assuming the distinct personas and attitudes -- bereft, irate, indifferent -- for each of the sons. In keeping with the austere tone of the production, the changes Story makes have more to do with affect than costume. Rolling up the sleeves of a T-shirt or adding a windbreaker are the only cosmetic alterations he requires.
Van Griethuysen makes of Salter a sleazy codger in wrinkled pinstripes, so disheveled you almost want to weed him. Salter is the kind of opportunist who compounds misfortune by first calculating who can be sued; what redeems him, in van Griethuysen's sly performance, is the sense of a vulnerable being whose better instincts are competing with the baser ones. The play sustains tension only when an actor of the caliber of van Griethuysen can sow doubt with an audience, and leave open the question of whether a man guilty of betrayal has any remaining claim on a child.
There's no set to speak of here, only a couple of chairs and a shag rug the color of eggshells. This, too, is apt, because figuratively it's what Churchill's characters walk on, as they wade through the play's morally swampy terrain. Some in the audience may find the meticulously rendered dialogue a little plodding; a lot of "A Number" is left to the imagination, to an inclination to fill out the back story in your head, to penetrate the psyches of these groping individuals and marvel at the way they alternately hurt and console each other. Listen very closely and savor the undercurrents.
The tragedy in "A Number" reflects more than anything else the sorrowful limits in the way men in general, and fathers and sons in particular, communicate. In his encounter with a final clone of Bernard -- we do learn, by the way, which one is "real" and which ones are Memorex -- the now desperate and lonely Salter wants only to learn something urgent about this one's heart. The question is, will any substitute Bernard ever do? For the building blocks of love, Churchill reminds us, you need more than DNA.
A Number, by Caryl Churchill. Directed by Joy Zinoman. Set, Debra Booth; lighting, Michael Lincoln; costumes, Brandee Mathies; projections, Erik Trester; sound, Gil Thompson; dialect consultant, Elizabeth van den Berg. Approximately 1 hour. Through Oct. 16 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Call 202-332-3300 or visit www.studiotheatre.org.
Salter (Ted van Griethuysen) rails at yet another version of his son Bernard (Tom Story).