In Churchill’s ‘A Number,’ a standout performance keeps the once-timely debates about cloning fresh and important

James Saito and Joel de la Fuente in 'A Number.' (William P. Steele.)
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When it debuted in 2004 at New York Theatre Workshop, Caryl Churchill’s A Number revolved around the character of Salter, a widower who got more than he bargained for when he cloned his only son. Casting the blustery Sam Shepard in the role ensured that you never took your eyes off Salter.In the National Asian American Theatre Company’s engaging revival, it’s Salter’s sons who grab your attention. Once again it’s because of an impressive performance. Joel de la Fuente plays a trio of young men who share the same DNA, but he infuses each with a distinct personality. He doesn’t just change sweaters to tackle each character but transforms himself completely: his voice, gestures, even his posture.

The change of focus feels entirely justified, as Churchill isn’t as concerned with the moral or ethical challenges of cloning as she is with how you might feel if you found that there were a dozen or so carbon copies of you running around. As Bernard discovers that he has an unknown number of identical siblings, de la Fuente reveals his quickly shifting emotions, reeling from confusion to sorrow to hostility.

The anger comes when Salter confirms that Bernard hasn’t actually been cloned, but is one of the clones. His original son is still very much alive. That bitter young man, institutionalized as a child because of behavioral problems, soon comes looking for his replacement.

Shepard played Salter as a character full of scorn and buried in denial; James Saito emphasizes his character’s regret and despair. More realistic, perhaps, but you can’t help but wish that he’d scream or raise his fist at some point. Terrible things happen to Salter and the people around him, but you never know how much they affect him because of Saito’s too-controlled performance.

A Number, which refers to the unknown quantity of clones that were made, unfolds as a series of conversations between Salter and his sons. Maureen Payne-Hahner's stop-and-start direction emphasizes the play's episodic structure. It’s effective, however, that she has her characters change clothes onstage, allowing the audience to watch de la Fuente as he toggles between characters. Czerton Lim’s set includes wall panels that initially resemble abstract patterns, but reveal themselves to be DNA sequences. It’s a subtle underscoring of the play’s themes, and it's effective.

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Churchill is a provocateur, and many of her plays seem intended to rile up audiences. (There was, for instance, her 10-minute play Seven Jewish Children: A Play for Gaza, argued in some circles to be anti-Semitic after it was performed at London's Royal Court Theatre in February 2009, though fellow playwrights Alisa Solomon and Tony Kushner praised the work.) This is certainly the case with A Number, which played on our fears of cloning after scientists unveiled Dolly the sheep. But although the prospect of human cloning no longer makes headlines, A Number's questions about what makes us human and what makes us individuals feel larger and more basic than the headlines; if this were science fiction, rather than science, it would work as well.

The National Asian American Theatre Company’s revival of A Number is playing at the Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce St., through April 3. Tickets are $25 and are available at 212-239-6200 or www.telecharge.com.