Origins of a species

At Players’ Ring, taking stabs at the human order
By MEGAN GRUMBLING  |  March 8, 2006

ARC EXPLORATION: Pairs of discoverers.When Hamlet expounded, to his two interchangeable stooges, upon what a piece of work man is, he was probably not anticipating cloning. In her excellent theatrical pairing for Daniel Productions at the Players’ Ring, billed as 2 x 2 x 2, director Liz Korabek juxtaposes two modern takes on the human quintessence: Performed by the same pair of actors — Chris Curtis and Alan Huisman, both sensitive and devastating — and written by two of modern theater’s edgiest and most incisive masters — Caryl Churchill and Edward Albee — these two one-act plays — A Number and The Zoo Story — both address the scary, innate particulars of the human creature.

As we meet A Number’s weak Salter (Huisman) and his grown offspring Bernard (Curtis), their conversation is disquieting enough to keep them breaking off sentences and gripping at their digits. Seems there are an extra 20 of Bernard out there running around somewhere, and this is news to Bernard. It’s also news to Salter, apparently, but this father figure is nonetheless implicated, on top of which he can’t seem to keep his story straight. As he’s visited by Bernard, by another Bernard, and finally by a third Bernard genotype named Michael (all performed by Curtis), Salter gradually reveals his strange complicity and his creepy, flaccid pathologies.

A Number isn’t really about the ethics of cloning. All the play’s subsequent confusions about originals versus copies, and about nature versus nurture, are about what defines a human individual.

As Salter, Huisman’s desperation and his wan but dangerous sense of his own helplessness are frightening, and heartbreaking, to watch. Curtis, tasked with both making the three genotypes pointedly distinct and instilling them with infinitesimal clues of similarity, gives an engrossing, tour de force performance.

Churchill’s jittery script frequently deprives its characters’ speech of objects and subjects and meanders them around twisty double-negatives, leaving statements to hang in indefinite articulations. Huisman and Curtis exacerbate this verbal insecurity effect by creating an aural atmosphere that’s never at rest or ease, filled with vocal jabs and retreats, breathy uncertainty, and tremors that sometimes waver away and other times surge.

When Salter desperately presses Michael to explain, essentially, what makes the younger man himself, as opposed to the 20 other genotypes out there, Michael makes the question both facile and utterly opaque. He tells Salter that, afer all, our genes are 99 percent the same as any other person’s, 90 percent the same as a chimpanzee’s, and 30 percent the same as a lettuce. “I love about the lettuce,” Michael beams. “It makes me feel that I belong.”

Our human role in the big menagerie gets another close and brutal look in Edward Albee’s first play, The Zoo Story, written in 1958. The chumpish-but-pleasant Peter (Huisman), a well-off publishing executive in a pink golf shirt, is bewildered when his nice afternoon in Central Park is interrupted by the volatile and charismatic tale-weaver Jerry (Curtis). Jerry has just been to the zoo, but there’s a lot of back story to get through — including exposition about Jerry’s rented room, his black queen neighbor, and his lustful landlady’s hateful dog — before he can tell Peter why he went there. Peter, for his part, wanly benign, isn’t so sure that he wants to know at all, but Jerry’s excellent rhetorical skills and unnerving enthusiasm render him helpless and slack-jawed, compelled in spite of himself.

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