Blue Genes

Caryl Churchill's A Number explores the nature (or nurture?) of evil.

ACT's in-the-round stage felt like an operating theater at the opening-night performance of Caryl Churchill's A Number. The audience leaned over the brightly lit circle, watching two men clinically dissect their relationship. It was an intense, 60-minute procedure, and by the end, we felt relieved—like we had come close to something scary but walked away unscathed.

A Number is ostensibly a bit of dramatic science fiction—a father-son relationship placed in a brave new world of genetic engineering. But its strongest themes are as old as the hills: abandonment, remorse, revenge.

Kevin Tighe plays a British father in some unspecified future who has tinkered with the genetic makeup of his offspring. Peter Crook portrays an adult son dropping by dad's house for a heart-to-heart. In the director's seat is John Kazanjian, founder of New City Theater—an old pro at staging the spare, uncompromising, and personally political drama of the late 20th century. When he rubs these two actors together, they draw sparks. Apart from some stuttery pacing at the start (for instance, when one character stops talking midsentence before the other has gotten a chance to "interrupt" him), the script is delivered firmly and without undue sentiment.

A Number is one of Churchill's (Top Girls, Far Away) most recent plays. It's a one-act chamber piece, slight but not inconsequential, which posits fascinating questions about identity, parental responsibility, and free will. Its most interesting character, masterfully played by Tighe, is a bad man who has done good things. Or maybe a good man who has done bad. We never really know, which makes the nature/nurture debate at the heart of the play all the more intriguing.

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