Bernard is a chip off the old block. "You're just what I wanted," his father, Salter, assures him. Made to order, in fact. Now a grown man, Bernard (Josh Charles) confronts his father (Bill Smitrovich) with an unsettling discovery: He's the clone of a previously undisclosed original, a replacement for the beautiful child Salter once had but, apparently, lost. At first it's hard to say how — Salter's story keeps changing. But if each detail Bernard pulls from his reluctant, taciturn father is like another child ripped from the test tube, Salter acknowledges the essential truth of the matter, only insisting that he too was deceived, since he had ordered just a single replacement. The men in the lab coats have been pursuing an agenda of their own. According to the one who spoke to Bernard, there are in fact "a number" of clones like him out there, somewhere. A profoundly disturbed Bernard wonders if they share the same dreams. His father, trying to marshal their defenses, wonders if they can sue. How much is each slice of a person's uniqueness worth anyway?
So begins renowned British playwright Caryl Churchill's A Number, her shrewd, tightly drawn 2004 drama now making its West Coast debut at American Conservatory Theater (ACT). In the course of its lean hour-long single act, it takes several turns, as Salter and son confront one another as if for the first time, in halting, half-finished lines and overlapping thoughts. More dramatically still, each begins separately to confront his self-image anew. Indeed, even as two more sons arrive (each played by Charles), the theme of cloning that opens the play so forcefully begins subtly to dissolve in more general lines of inquiry, ultimately more unsettling than the narrow science fiction spinning out an indefinite series of genetic Xeroxes who may or may not share the same penchants and innermost thoughts. One of these lines of investigation has to do with patriarchal authority, you might say, or the tyranny of parental power and the prerogatives and rights of children. The fraught relationship between Salter and his son(s) touches on ground whose ethical and even philosophical contours are rocky at best, as we come to glimpse the darker recesses of Salter's past and his straightforward desire to start over, to set things right, to bring his life (including, inevitably, his offspring) under control.
Another even more basic theme set in motion here, however, has to do with what makes us happy: how self-knowledge relates to self-image, to our definition of life, and to our definition of the human. It's as if the traditional fear and fascination associated with the doppelgänger meet their modern equivalent in the laboratory clone, both of them cultural figments with the power to open up the presumably solid ground that underlies notions of our uniqueness as individuals and as a species. But whereas the premodern doppelgänger could suggest a spirit world beyond the material, in a demystified world the clone reduces everything all the more insistently to the material — genetic material, to be exact: an interchangeable array of molecular puzzle pieces without spirits or ostensible meaning. The modern bureaucratic nightmare of being reduced to merely "a number" finally roosts in each chromosome. If this is understandably disturbing, however, it's far from the end of the story. For, as the third son, Michael, suggests, why shouldn't the revelation Bernard confronts — with all its implications about our relation to other living things — be a source of comfort or delight?