Salter, the father figure in Cygnet Theatre's current A Number, regrets a lot of his seamy past—how ironic, then, that his “sons” have no “pasts” at all. That's what you get when you let the genetic engineers roll the dice as you seek a match for your matchless firstborn. The science behind human cloning is sobering enough, but it doesn't begin to approach the potential for family upheaval, especially when idiots like Salter are involved. His actions were once likely well-intentioned in his own mind, but if mainstream morality's the issue, this guy couldn't grab his own ass with both hands.
The more one of the duplicate characters probes for clues to his origin, the more unintelligible Salter seems to become. His answers are often grammatically threadbare (It “was by an artificial the forefront of science” is one exact quote) amid his distaste for the truth behind his actions. Touches like that give this Caryl Churchill play its stylized, properly disorienting feel—meanwhile, director Esther Emery is in her element as this compelling cautionary tale marks the close of Cygnet's fifth campaign.
Salter's guilt over his own corruption has yielded a contrite tongue in his exchanges with three other figures. The first is the virginal, recalcitrant Bernard, whom Salter raised as a single father and from whom he withheld the fact that Bernard's a clone. Next is the flesh-and-blood Bernard, a rough-and-tumble sort Salter abandoned as he sought a genetic replacement. Lastly, we meet Michael Black, one of 20 or so others culled from the biological son. Michael's glad-handing politeness is a far cry from the traits that drive the other two. It's also a slap in the face to Salter, who amid his disgrace must marvel at how nicely Michael turned out. The others maybe didn't fare as well amid Salter's absentee fatherhood and their own disenfranchisement at the hands of the money-hungry genetic engineers.
Churchill knows exactly how and where to shorten and lengthen the sons' leashes—their speeches illustrate the solidarity they share, yet their lines hold enough nuance to express their individuality. And oh, my, does Francis Gercke seize on every opportunity to distinguish all three roles. He's downright magical in crafting the trio's unseen bond, matching Churchill stride for stride through his voice and movement. D.W. Jacobs' Salter moves nicely between admission of guilt and remorse for his acts. But Churchill's dialogue sometimes seeks to reveal Salter's prickly side—the best Jacobs gives us at those moments is feigned ignorance.
Yes, he does throw a big bowl of oranges (a good anecdote for the cloning theme) across Jungha Han's spare set—but I get the sense that that's his immaturity talking, not his frustration. While Emery could have coaxed more of the latter from Jacobs, she's also tended well to Salter's place as a man whose past has caught up with his present. She's created a consistent portrayal as a result, and it works against the three other temperaments.
Several states, tired of waiting for the feds to outlaw human cloning, have taken the law into their own hands in recent years. While their caution is admirable, man's ambitions often aren't. With or without legislation, renegade geneticists will push the envelope for decades to come, with guys like Salter an easy financial mark. A Number serves as a solid case in point, examining a father's attempt to form a bond with his manufactured son on his own manufactured terms. It's a dreadfully ugly phenomenon. And it may well be part of our future. This review is based on the opening-night performance of May 31. A Number runs through June 29 at Cygnet Theatre's Rolando venue, 6663 El Cajon Blvd., College Area. 619-337-1525.