Sam Shepard and Dallas Roberts will star in the Caryl
Churchill cloning drama A NUMBER, opening Off-Broadway
at New York Theatre Workshop Dec. 7, 2004. James
MacDonald directs the staging of the new 70-minute
Churchill which began previews Nov. 16 at the NYTW's
East Village venue for a run through Jan. 16, 2005. The
play is about a son who discovers that he is one of a
number of clones produced by his father. Michael Gambon
played the patriarch opposite Daniel Craig as three of a
score of his multiple sons in the world premiere of the
work at London's Royal Court Theatre. Actor-director
Shepard is known in theatre mainly as a playwright for
such works as TRUE WEST and his Pulitzer Prize winner
BURIED CHILD. The Churchill work will mark the actor's
return to the stage after a 30 year absence.
"I love Samís work and Iíve directed three of Samís
plays, so itís a pleasure and a privilege to work with
the man himself.
absolutely brilliant with language. He has a writer's
ear for it and a musical ear as well. It's a tricky,
intricate text, and he's learnt it with absolute
fidelity and accuracy. His taste as an actor is towards
minimalism, which is exactly right for the piece. It
doesn't need a lot of external huffing and puffing. Just
do the thing as simply as you can with the greatest
truth you can muster."
Sam first read the script while filming STEALTH in
Australia in February of 2005. He says, "I sat down and
read it in one sitting and it absolutely blew me away.
It's a short play, but I couldn't believe how powerful
it was. It's a major, major contemporary play. I think
it will go down as a classic." When he heard about a New
York production of the play, he became interested only
to find out that the role had been offered to Nick
Nolte. "People have been trying to get me to be in plays
for 30 years, and the first time I said yes, I had to
wait for Nick to turn it down (laughing)."
The last time
he tried acting onstage was in 1971 when after just one
performance of COWBODY MOUTH, he left. At the time, he
said, "The thing was too emotionally packed. I suddenly
realized I didn't want to exhibit myself like that,
playing my life onstage. It was like being in an
aquarium." But in 2005 he felt differently, "You
really earn your spurs acting onstage. I needed to do
that for myself. I would hate to say at the end of
everything that I never did a stage play."
Sam had often
done literary readings for large audiences but he
admitted, "To stand up and read poetry or stories is one
thing. To play a character like this is a different
challenge. The character I'm playing is dealing with a
terrible, terrible mistake he tried to correct, and in
trying to correct it, he created an even worse disaster.
On the surface he deals with anger, arrogance, denial.
But underneath he's haunted by guilt and remorse.
Underneath the language is this tremendous emotional
base that you have to be vulnerable to. You have to
listen very closely. You have to follow the veins and
the rivers and the creeks and everything the language is
leading you to. Every once in a while, it just erupts."
Synopsis: A Number is a penetrating inquiry into
the intersection of morality, nature versus nurture, and
human cloning. Sam plays Salter, the father who must
look at the faces of his ethically questionable actions.
He had his child cloned and three of these identical
siblings appear during the course of this 65-minute
piece, but the audience is told there may be twenty or
so more. Salter claims to be outraged by this
duplication. The boys, now grown into young men, are all
played by Dallas Roberts. He manages to distinguish
between the three, Bernard, Bernard, and Michael,
through simple costume changes, different footwear,
careful accents, and unique physical presentations. The
result is an intriguing puzzle with no real answer. The
bulk of the play shifts from dialogues between the
father and one of his sons. The primary strength of
Churchill's plays is her elliptical use of language.
Very little a character says can be taken at face value,
for it is liable to be modified or even contradicted,
either in the same scene, or by action soon therafter.
She shares the "theatre of menace" with recent Nobel
laureate Harold Pinter, but her worldview has a more
fantastic element, where time is much more malleable and
meaning more poetic.
Ben Brantley, NY Times:
The arrival in New York of "A
Number," which was produced at the Royal Court Theater
in London two years ago, is a great event. And the
Workshop has honored the occasion not only by luring the
magnetic Mr. Shepard, who is of course famous as a
playwright and movie actor, back to the stage, but also
by entirely reconfiguring its theater... A number is
also the first line of this latest drama from the
ferociously inventive Ms. Churchill that stars Sam
Shepard (who is terrific in his first New York stage
appearance in more than 30 years) as a guilt-hobbled
father and Dallas Roberts as his son...
Mr. Shepard - who as a dramatist considers societal
disintegration from his own, very different point of
view - turns out to be an ideal interpreter of Ms.
Churchill's disjunctive prose. Her fragmented dialogue
flows from him like blood from an opened vein. That his
manner is as low key as always does not mean that he
does not register every iota of Salter's stricken
defensiveness. And his haggard leading-man good looks
here convey the impression of a bewildered burnt-out
Mr. Roberts, whose face melts between slyness and raw
openness, is excellent in two of his incarnations...
Power, passivity, horror and satisfaction are all
conveyed simply by the ways Mr. Shepard and Mr. Roberts
sit, stand and lie. Any moment, frozen out of context,
is a classic image of the gulf - and the possibility of
a bridge - between two generations. When these moments
are connected, though, the same images bleed into an
anything-but-classic portrait that portends a scary,
brave new family for which the rules have yet to be
Michael Feingold, Village Voice:
Fascinatingly written, in twisty, crisscrossing, unfinished sentences, A NUMBER
hides its information in tiny nuggets of fact hedged about by deceits and
evasions, giving us as little sense of the world around Salter and his sons as
of his motives in generating them. All the ethical and moral issues involved in
cloning are touched on, lightly, but never seem to be at the core of the gnomic
event. That's the enigma of the father-son connection, underscored by James
MacDonald's production, in a nearly bare semicircle at the bottom of a steeply
raked, curving makeshift auditorium that makes the actors look like battling
bantams in a cockpit, seen from above. Dallas Roberts gives a skillful account
of the multiple sons, and Sam Shepard, looking infuriatingly handsome and
healthy, is just the actor you want for maximum taciturnity."
Shepard, an actor who's the very image of the
weather-beaten American Westerner of few words, has a distinctly different
persona from the British Michael Gambon who originally played the father who is
faced with the aftermath of his replacing one son with a genetically engineered
copy. He fits the American version of the enigmatic father who must in the
course of the mere hour it takes for this disturbing drama to unfold show
himself to be unfeeling, defensive and wracked by pain and guilt. He is
convincingly understated, but it's Dallas Roberts' showcase performance that
brings home the key point of this Beckettian drama... A NUMBER is a powerful
enough play not to need any shock and awe staging conceits. Like Far Away, it's
a disturbing rather than entertaining theatrical experience that will have you
mulling over its implications long after Shepard and Roberts have taken their
Robert Brustein, The New Republic:
Eugene Lee's minimal set turns the entire auditorium into a medical theater
where we sit watching Churchill and her actors dissect their subject. The
director, James Macdonald, gets intense performances from Sam Shepard, his
lined, forlorn Gary Cooper features clenched in an attitude of bafflement and
remorse, and from Dallas Roberts, playing all the sons with the kind of variety
that suggests even clones have value--that whatever our genetic inheritance, we
are all of us discrete, unknowable individuals.
Caridad Svich, Hunter Dept. of Theatre:
The cat-and-mouse game between the father and his sons is deftly played out
with deceptively casual ease by Shepard and Roberts under James MacDonald's
precise and clear direction. Roberts has the showier assignment and makes the
most of it... Shepard has the tougher task... Speaking in a clipped, dry-as-bone
voice, Shepard keeps Salter on a tight emotional leash for most of the play...I
suspect that MacDonald encouraged the slight un-balance in performance styles to
emphasize this questioning. It is a credit to both performers that they are
willing to de-stabilize the theatrical atmosphere with their work to serve this
David Del Grosso, nytheatre.com:
Sam Shepard returns to stage acting after a 30-year absenceóan exciting
event in its own rightóas Salter. It is not a flashy role and Shepard plays this
complicated and flawed man with the stillness and restraint of an expert poker
player. Salter chews every secret before letting it go, and Shepardís strong,
sad presence as this failed father gives every one of Churchillís poetically
spare lines its proper weight. As the other half of this two-hander, it is
Dallas Roberts who has the bravura role. A NUMBER has been one of the most
anticipated plays of the season, and every aspect of this production meets and
even exceeds these expectations. As her plays continue to get leaner, more
graceful and always on target, Churchill continues to prove that she has few
contemporaries that can be considered to be writing at her level. See this if
Simon Saltzman, Theatre Scene:
Shepard, who is making his first appearance on the New York stage in 30 years,
brings a muted tension and a compelling sense of caged desperation to his role
as the guilt-ridden Salter. (Shepard leaves the play on January 16. He will be
replaced by Arliss Howard). The three sons are quirkily differentiated by
Dallas, an excellent actor who brings an entirely different but complimentary
energy to the play.
Michael Kuchwara, Edge Boston:
The box office draw here is playwright-actor Sam Shepard as the father.
Shepard's granite-hard good looks belie the man's despair, 'his realization that
an experiment, in which only one copy of his son was to have been made, has
multiplied into many more (though we only see two). Shepard captures this grief
with a quiet, almost apologetic intensity. Yet, the play, which MacDonald has
directed with precision, is about more than cloning. It also deals with the
question of human identity and responsibility.
NY Daily News:
Shepard seems well cast as the father, if only because he does nothing to ease
the tension. He sits stolid, largely unresponsive, enigmatic as the various sons
wrestle with the nature of their identities.
Eric Grode, Broadway.com:
Shepard makes a welcome return to the stage after some 30 years, giving an
assured performance and reminding us how long it's been since any director has
put his terse talents to their full use. Salter's initial idea of an apology is
a vague assurance that somebody somewhere is going to get sued ("there's money
to be made out of this"), but the deep sense of regret that slowly pervades his
crew-cut exactitude lends him a tragic grandeur. The brothers jockeying
furiously for dominance, the lapsed father, the laconic wit--all of these
elements show a deep affinity with Shepard's own plays, and it is a testament to
Churchill's and Macdonald's efforts that the presence of Shepard doesn't
overshadow their own world view.
Film & Theatre critic, William Wolf:
The author has given us a work that is amusing to watch and frightening to
contemplate. Shepard and Roberts are up to the acting task, and James
Macdonaldís direction keeps everything crisply concentrated within a spare set
that consists of a sofa, a lamp, a door and a large spotlight.
Marjorie Gunnar, New York Voice Inc:
Dallas Roberts plays the three men prickly, offended and disconnectedly,
depending on their various likes and dislikes even to dogs. Sam Shepard lingers
in your mind like the perturbed onlookers in us all who can't stop the
inevitable. Worth seeing.
Don Bacalzo, Theatre Mania:
As played by Shepard, Salter is quiet and withholding with both sons; love and
affection are there, certainly, but also a reluctance to really communicate.
Director James Macdonald has Shepard seated on a couch for almost the entire
play, so it's a good thing that the actor is a captivating stage presence.
Salter's unwillingness to move more than a few inches on the couch says volumes
about just how close he is to the Bernards.....As the three variations of
Salter's progeny, Dallas Roberts is terrific. He makes each character distinctly
different without resorting to caricature...The production is flawlessly paced;
despite the fact that the characters spend so much time sitting on a couch, it
never feels static. There's plenty of humor, too, as Churchill also explores the
comic possibilities of the play's circumstances. A Number runs just over an
hour, yet it's more satisfying than many plays twice its length.