That prized commodity known as individuality gets a thorough going-over in Caryl Churchill’s potent drama, “A Number,” currently at Next Theatre under the astute direction of BJ Jones. Human cloning is the story’s catalyst—a batch of cloned men in their thirties have recently become aware of one another’s existence; we meet three of them over the course of the play—but Churchill is just as interested in issues of filial resentment as she is with brain-frying existential crises. One by one, each son confronts Salter, their biological father and the man who set the whole mess in motion. How disturbed would you be to learn there are DNA replicas of yourself wandering around somewhere? Mr. Rogers used to make us feel warm and safe when he sang “You are special,” a declaration that hinged on the contention that “you are the only one like you.” But what if that’s all a lie? Over the past few years Churchill has evolved into a minimalist playwright, and she gets her points across using the sparest of brushstrokes—“A Number” is only a hour long, and it is filled with half uttered thoughts and partially revealed secrets. The end result is an intellectual slap to the face: quick and powerful, leaving you dizzy afterwards. Jay Whittaker portrays each of the three sons using subtle variations in accent, body language and minor costuming details. He is an actor well suited to Churchill’s economy; his slight build is offset by a resonant voice that commands your attention. John Judd, as Salter, doesn’t fare as well, but then again, neither does his character, who is both crass and loving, and consumed with the idea of suing Those Who Cloned. Churchill’s final thought, however, is perhaps the most compelling: That a grown child can be happy despite the oddest of circumstances. As a parent, isn’t that the whole point—to produce a happy child? (Nina Metz)
“A Number” plays at Next Theatre, Noyes Cultural Arts Center, 927 Noyes Street, Evanston, (847)475-1875, through February 26.