ODD OFFSPRING Estrella and O'Brien in 'A Number.' [Photo by Peter Goldberg]
There are some people you wouldn’t trust with the power to predict the future. British playwright Caryl Churchill is probably one, judging from the two one-act plays the Sandra Feinstein-Gamm Theatre is opening their season with (through October 13). A Number and Far Away premiered in 2002 and 2000, respectively.
Whether she typed out these tales one-handed while biting her fingernails or she’s just messin’ with us, the scenarios she describes sure are spooky. But there is enough humor in each to leaven all the seriousness.
Once in the realm of science fiction, like space travel and iPods, cloning is now more than a theoretical possibility. Since Dolly the sheep was born in 1996, can Dolly the shepherdess be far behind? In A Number (directed by Judith Swift), some of the myriad opportunities and implications of genetically replicating people are put to dramatic use.
The biological phenomenon itself shouldn’t be startling, since we don’t faint at the sight of identical twins. But there is something creepy and lockstep-warrior-legions about taking command of the process. Salter (Jim O’Brien) had a son, raised him badly, sent him away and tried to start all over with an in vitro fertilization duplication of the same genetic material. Bernard 2, because his father got his act together and treated him better, turned out to be a mentally healthy contrast to Bernard 1, an angry bundle of damaged goods. Tony Estrella is wizardly in transforming a bright and sunny presence into a dark and menacing one. Short hair unkempt, posture less erect, voice and enunciation suggesting lower-class upbringing, all that accumulates into a distinctly different person. A scary sibling rivalry ensues.
Things are further complicated by Salter learning that many more clones were created secretly along with Bernard 2. A case is being made for nurture over nature, not only by the two Bernards behaving so differently but also by Michael Black, their spitting image, showing up, chipper as a chipmunk, devoid of curiosity or personality, a further contrast with each of them.
The first of the three scenes comprising Far Away, directed by Estrella, is moody and grim, proceeding to a lighter tone, and concluding in a frenetic and hilariously absurd surrender to our species’ violent impulses. Things start out with a young girl, Joan (Lauren Durkin), unable to sleep, coming downstairs with her Teddy bear to be comforted by her Aunt Harper (Casey Seymour Kim). Seeing her uncle pushing someone into the shed, she had climbed out of her bedroom window to find out what was going on. Joan parcels out the details gradually, but what she describes is less revealing then the child’s reluctance to add up the obvious, that loving grown-ups can do terrible things.