WATERTOWN — When news broke a couple of decades ago about the cloning of Dolly the sheep, you had to wonder if science was poised to take the next big step and start Xeroxing, you know, us. Send in the clones!
But we’re still awaiting, or dreading, the big breakthrough when it comes to artificial human cloning, and the subject seldom seems to galvanize public conversation nowadays, except, perhaps, among fans of BBC America’s clone drama “Orphan Black.’’
I wish the creators of the often-murky “Orphan Black’’ possessed British playwright Caryl Churchill’s taut economy of style and precision of focus. In “A Number,’’ her dystopian 2002 play about cloning and its very unexpected consequences, Churchill devotes no time to preamble or writerly throat-clearing, but plunges us straightaway into the play’s central dilemma. A gripping production of “A Number’’ at New Repertory Theatre, directed by Clay Hopper, races by in 60 minutes, none of them wasted.
“A Number’’ underscores the fluidity and precariousness of identity while subtly asking, in both title and text, whether our lofty notions of individuality are, ultimately, an illusion. In its depiction of a relationship between a creator and his creations that is fraught with unanswered and possibly unanswerable questions, one can also glimpse, perhaps, a flickering mirror of the relationship between the divine and the human.
Nael Nacer portrays three characters, two of them clones of the original, and he endows all three with distinctly different mannerisms and personalities, along with a sense of the (quite literally) mortal stakes involved for each character. Nacer’s versatility and adaptability have made him one of the busiest actors in town — he’s the Brock Holt of Boston theater — and here he ups his game even further, delivering his best performance (or is it performances?) since 2012’s “The Kite Runner,’’ also at New Rep.
More than ably complementing Nacer while radiating a different kind of intensity is Dale Place as Salter, the 60-something father who set events in motion decades earlier. Spoiler alert: Partial plot details lie ahead. Disembark now if you want to avoid them.
After his wife died, Salter arranged for a clone to be created of his then-young son, seemingly motivated by not much more than selfishness and expediency and a desire for a perfect child, fashioned from what he calls the “raw materials’’ of the original. Churchill is less interested in exploring Salter’s rationale than in depicting the fallout from, and the moral issues raised by, his actions.
Now dear old pater has to face the music, frantically trying to justify his actions to his enraged 40-year-old son, Bernard, and to the confused clone, five years younger and also named Bernard, who had been raised by Salter as a son. “I’m just a copy,’’ says an anguished Bernard 2 (as he is identified in the playbill). “I’m not the real one.’’
As Bernard 1, speaking in a Cockney accent, with every syllable conveying the original son’s bitterness at having been replaced and sent away in childhood, Nacer is genuinely scary. When Bernard 1 says “Hello, Daddy’’ to Salter, it carries the blunt force of a mingled threat and accusation. Given the intensity of his feelings of unjust usurpation, a collision between the two Bernards seems inevitable. (Once a second clone materializes, he proves far different, temperamentally, from Bernards 1 and 2).
Director Hopper is in tune with Churchill’s unsparing vision, and Place and Nacer both seem at home with her elliptical dialogue, in which characters often finish or annotate each other’s sentences. It’s not the first time the two actors have worked together: They made a memorable team in a 2011 Boston Playwrights’ Theatre production of Walt McGough’s “The Farm’’ as a CIA agent and the ghost of a young man the spy had trained.
“A Number’’ has a ghostly quality of its own as it unfolds on Cristina Todesco’s chilly, futuristic set, a medley of grays, whites, and blacks that is dominated by four large, tubelike structures. Inside those structures are still more tubes in the form of fluorescent lights that periodically sputter on as if something is coming to life: sudden, random, unpredictable, and hard to control.
Don Aucoin can be reached at email@example.com.