This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.
The British playwright Caryl Churchill has been writing acclaimed dramatic work since the 1970's, but with her last three plays, Far Away, A Number and Drunk Enough To Say I Love You all written this decade, she has done the impossible. Not only has she managed to get all three of these serious-themed, short plays produced by major theaters in both London and New York, but with these three works, she has also somehow managed to stop time. Each of these plays runs only about 60 minutes, and yet the act of watching them seems to take forever.
Here in Los Angeles people have tried seemingly every anti-aging technique known to man, but those who really want to turn back the hands of time should buy a ticket to the Odyssey Theatre and spend a few hours watching the LA premiere of Churchill's 55-minute long play A Number.
I had the misfortune of seeing the world premiere of A Number in London seven years ago. It starred Michael Gambon and then-unknown Daniel Craig. About 10 minutes into the show — directed on a bare stage by Stephen Daldry — I started noticing that the play contained no drama and wasn't even making much sense.
Credit local director Bart DeLorenzo: in this production at the Odyssey, it took me about 15 minutes to realize that the play was completely empty and devoid of drama or interest. DeLorenzo makes the wise decision of using an actual set, and directs actor Steve Cell (who plays the Daniel Craig role) to change costumes and really give his multiple characters different personalities. This helps Churchill's play seem like a real dramatic work for a while, but DeLorenzo can't defy gravity: A Number is a theatrical black hole that will eventually swallow any production.
This 2002 play is ostensibly about the ethical dangers of cloning, but the dense, clipped dialogue really doesn't open your mind to any new ideas. Churchill plays hide the ball, making you figure out that the character of Salter (originated by Gambon and played here by John Heard) has somehow created “a number” (never specified or known) of clones of his son. Once that's clear, she has nothing else to say other than, “Wow, if we start cloning people, things will get complicated.” It's clear that she wants to say something about the loss of identity or power of free will, but her ideas would have trouble filling an op-ed article, let alone an hour-long stage drama.
What really makes the time move so slowly though is the smug tone of play. Churchill clearly thinks she has talent of Beckett or Pinter, but her spare, fragmented words don't bloom in the long silences that follow, instead they clang to the floor. Rather than inspiring ideas or creating atmosphere, Churchill's minimalism simply gives you the sense that she can't be bothered to actually take the time to make her audience interested.
Those looking for the complete opposite of Churchill's cold, prickly, off-putting work can spend an hour this weekend with Charlie Lustman's warm, fuzzy musical therapy session Made Me Nuclear. Lustman, who used to run the Silent Movie Theater on Fairfax, is a recent cancer survivor who has put his story into song. Instead of making his one-man show universal, Lustman focuses on the particulars of his own unique struggle. This gives Made Me Nuclear immediacy but it makes it feel more like therapy than entertainment, the type of show that works more in hospitals or counseling sessions. Despite this, Made Me Nuclear seems to have found an audience: it's been extended a number of times since it debuted back in September of last year.
This Friday and Saturday are its final performances at the Santa Monica Playhouse before Made Me Nuclear begins a scheduled tour this fall; and Caryl Churchill's A Number runs at the Odyssey Theatre through June 21.
This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.
Banner image by Enci; Lustman images by Jim Steinfeldt