A Number
Oct. 21, 22, 28, 29 at 8 p.m.

PURE Theatre
The Cigar Factory, 701 East Bay St.

With the birth of Dolly the sheep in 1996, Britain’s Roslyn Institute was transformed from a worthy research center into a marvelous high-tech sideshow. There, Scottish scientists were busy playing God. (Their choice of animal wasn’t so surprising; Scotsmen have spent centuries cultivating an, er, intimate knowledge of their bleating buddies.) Now that we knew that scientists were capable of replicating sentient life, we wondered what other tricks were up their sleeve. For a while, anything seemed possible. Yet nine years later, Dolly is dead and the future seems further away than ever.

So where does that leave PURE Theatre’s A Number? The piece concerns a dissembling dad and his cloned offspring, who all have different personalities. As such, it explores similar themes to the Schwarzenegger-by-numbers flick The Sixth Day and Ira Levin’s The Boys From Brazil. The play is already less shocking than in 2002, when it was first performed by Michael Gambon and Daniel “James Blond” Craig. Fortunately, the fun here isn’t derived from the concepts so much as the way they’re presented.

Playwright Caryl Churchill flaunts her Brechtian influences with a simple, episodic one-hour show. The first four scenes contrast one son — the gentle, bewildered Bernard 2 — with a proto-Bernard, neglected as a child and aggressive as an adult.

Churchill seeks to subvert the fantastic trappings of A Number. She’s aware that the genre is renowned for starting a story with an ugly lump of exposition, so she obliges. Salter (Mark Landis) confesses that he had a facsimile made of his son after a car crash. The son has just learned that he has a number of photocopied siblings, and he’s in shock. The dialogue is believably disjointed, and Salter seems sincere as he attempts to help his son deal with the news.

In the next scene Churchill dumps the expositional lump — Salter has been telling porkies, and his real son isn’t happy about it. The audience is disoriented by the appearance of Bernard 1 (all the Bernards are played by the same actor, PURE repertory member David Mandell) and spends the scene sifting through the misinformation they’ve been given. Bernard 1 has violent tendencies, but possesses enough self-control to sit with his dad and discuss family matters.

Here’s where Churchill earns her writer’s fee, because A Number doesn’t rely on cloning for all its dramatic possibilities. Instead, it explores the foibles of fucked-up families, nature versus nurture, alcoholism, and the mourning process. It hinges on Cain and Abel-sized sibling rivalry, while Salter’s paternal responsibilities are examined and found wanting. Genetic tampering has given him a second chance after failing his original son. He gets to play daddy all over again, learning from his mistakes in a mirror of the evolutionary process.

As the dad, CofC professor of theatre Landis’ earlier, more comedic scenes are his strongest. He plays a foil to Mandel, who meets the challenge of playing the same guy three different ways. One grumble: in the final scene, his Michael Black character (the third clone) is a little too blithe, oblivious to some of the darker matters that Salter discusses with him.

A Number‘s matter-of-fact treatment of cloning will probably prove shocking only to fans of organized religion, who should fasten their bible belts and settle in for a bumpy, provocative ride. Otherwise, at $15 a ticket, the short running time, lack of set, minimal lighting, and ambiguous atmosphere may leave some audience members feeling shortchanged. But the free parking will help make it much easier to pay up for this quick fix of smart, stimulating theatre.