A NUMBER by Caryl Churchill at Grand Central Studio



“Nowadays we will say: what our ghosts will say, we gave the world what it saw fit, and what did we get? (Iron & Wine lyrics by Resurrection Fern)

“Any number is a shock…” (Salter)

“So when you opened the door, did you recognize me?” Do you recognize me now? (B1)

A Number written by British playwright Caryl Churchill premiered in September 2002 at the Royal Court Theater in London, England. The play starred Michael Gambon as Salter and Daniel Craig as Bernard (Et al.). Under critical acclaim, Churchill’s play was praised for its use of “significant intellectual depth while imploring effective economy of style”. Told in a series of five vignettes, the story takes place in the near future, where a relationship/conflict between father and son comes to a head when the conflict over the use of human cloning becomes the topic of conversation. The piece expresses the deeply divided differences between nature and nurture, and the idea that “if we had a redo, could we atone for our mistakes?”

In an article in The New York Times, Ben Brantley described Churchill’s work as “breathtaking” and “a compelling dramatic examination of what happens to autonomous identity in a world where people can be cloned”.

In each vignette, we meet Salter’s sons, or “son clones”, as they discuss the ups and downs of their lives/relationships. In the first vignette, we meet Bernard 2, as he discovers he is one of many clones. Not only is this a shock for Bernard 2, but also for Salter, as he discovers that the doctors have made several other clones outside of his knowledge. Afterwards, B1 visits his father for the first time since he last visited as a young child. B1 learns of his transfer to a clinic, following the death of his mother. Surrounded by a sense of neglect, B1 swears to ruin the one thing Salter loves the most. B2 decides to leave the country for an extended period, to get away from his father, and his fears of dying if he stays. Following multiple visits from B1 and B2, Salter meets Michael (another clone).

Grand Central Studio, home of the Off-Central Players and director Alan Mohney, Jr., brings Churchill’s searing, intellectual dialogue to life in 60 expertly paced minutes.

The setting itself is functional in a simplistic form and takes nothing away from the actors who inhabit the space and tell the story. The intricate use of LED lighting almost creates a character on its own and adds a beautifully rendered layer to the story.

For all intents and purposes, and her ability to convey the world she wrote about, Churchill provides no scenic direction and no meaningful setting or indication of it. Often lending itself to the ideas of “domesticated realism”, without distracting attention from its real purpose, in this case dialogue.

This production for our purposes feels very current and true to life, even though life has progressed a few years into the distant future at this point, and Alan Mohney Jr.’s concept and overall direction proves to be relevant. and kinetics, and cut a clear through the line from start to finish.

“What is the value of human life?”

“What is the source of our individuality?”

From a technical standpoint, the production is beautifully rendered and conceptualized. With expert lighting design by Michael Horn, which, as I said before, almost creates a character in its own right. The different textures created in the lighting alone allow us, as the audience, to grasp the ups and downs of the story. With director Alan Mohney Jr.’s scenic and sound design, the world created is almost “dystopian” in concept and clinical/sterile in texture. If you’re not sure what I mean, watch a 2015 movie called “Equals,” starring Nicholas Hoult and Kristen Stewart for a point of reference. With the stark contrast of the lighting amid the gray on the walls and the otherwise muted textiles on the stage, it allowed the liveliness of the performers’ emotions to shine through, while maintaining a futuristic quality to the world. The Sound Design added an interesting layer to the story with an instrumental version of Nirvana’s Heart Shaped Box, played on an electric cello. The lyrics of Heart Shaped Box cling to the frame of the world it was created in beautifully, and help set up the structure, for the dialogue to be laid out before us.

“Hey, wait, I have a new complaint,

Eternally indebted to your precious advice…your advice…your advice…”

-Nirvana’s “heart-shaped box”

For a voice actor to work, your first mission as a producer should be to find two performers who are compelling and interesting enough, and layered in every facet of the word, to carry a story for as long as necessary. I can say hands down that with Ward Smith as Salter and Anthony Gervais as Bernard (Et. al), you can’t go wrong. There’s something so complex about their back and forth and their onstage chemistry. You get a real sense of the strained relationship between father and son. We’ve all experienced movies and TV shows where the father-son dichotomy is structurally apparent and played out very well, but it’s a whole different way to an end when you feel the tension in person. The emotional showdown between the two performers is so structured and captivating, and the pacing is so crystal clear that 60 minutes feels like mere seconds.

Having never experienced Anthony’s work on stage, it was a breath of fresh air to see him tackle not one, but three different characters. Each character has their own way of moving, their way of speaking and their own mannerisms, you can fully see three separately thought people in Salter’s life. I’ve definitely noticed the power he brings to the stage and can’t wait to see him again very soon.

Ward Smith, artistic director producer of the Off-Central Players is exceptional here. From start to finish, you not only feel the love, but also the pain in a father’s heart. Not only that, but you get a real sense of his desire to atone for the mistakes he made. Having enjoyed Ward’s previous performances throughout the Bay Area, this is no exception, and Ward is in his element here.

It always intrigues me when a work of art like Churchill’s is finished. The old adage is you have to do the classics to pay the risk, however, in the world we’ve seemingly grown accustomed to, I say take a page out of Field of Dreams. “Build it and they will come.” There’s something about taking a risk in the hope that it pays off, and with Alan Mohney Jr. at its helm, risque, intriguing, challenging, and damn right, it’s exactly what to order. With A Number, the folks at Studio Grand Central are sparking the right kind of conversation. So what are you waiting for? If thought-provoking discussion is something you’re looking for, look no further than the compelling work produced at Studio Grand Central, I have a feeling you’ll find exactly what you’re looking for. Tickets can be purchased by visiting studiograndcentral.com. A Number is due to end on November 20, and it is a production not to be missed.

“There are a lot of mean people…you see them all around you.”

Photo credit: @DOWNTOWNCAROL

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