Cloning and genetic engineering, with all its political, religious, and sociological ramifications, is rapidly becoming a very real concern, as well as a hot topic in our society. Not surprisingly, the subject serves as the dramatic propellant in Caryl Churchill’s provocative and exceedingly short play "A Number." Although "A Number" takes just a bit more than an hour to unfold, it is packed with enough psychological permutations to fill a three-hour drama. The acclaimed writer of such tantalizing plays as "Cloud Nine," "Top Girls," Mad Forest," and most recently "Far Away," is heralding a reality that few of us can truly imagine yet acknowledge is already in the making. "A Number" considers the emotional as well as the experiential complexities that will surely arise for the individual and for society when the science of genetics is used as a tool for creating and or duplicating life.

The play, directed with surgical precision by James MacDonald, focuses on the dilemma of a widower who is made answerable for his past actions by his middle-aged sons. The New York Theater Workshop has once again been reconstructed (barely recognizable from the stark white walls that framed "Hedda Gabler") by designer Eugene Lee to resemble a hospital’s amphitheater, inspired by a 19th century photograph. The steeply tiered seating with folding chairs gives the viewer the impression of looking down on a medical procedure. A sofa and a floor lamp are the only props.

Under the glare of a surgical lamp, Salter (first played by Sam Shepard, who this reviewer saw, and replaced by Arliss Howard) is visited by his troubled son Bernard (Dallas Roberts). When Bernard reveals to his father that he has been duplicated ("a number of them"), Salter seems dismayed that scientists may have cloned his son’s cells without permission. Just as Bernard is unable to get satisfying answers to his many questions, another more aggressive and accusatory son (also Bernard) pays a subsequent visit. He is revealed as the prototype and similarly but more assertively pursues his father’s motive. Salter’s response: "But I didn’t know that, that wasn’t part of the deal. They were meant to make one of you, not a whole number, they stole that."

Churchill’s brittle text is purposefully fragmented. But it is carefully scattered with clues that slowly and methodically explain Salter’s decision to allow scientists to reproduce a son who was permanently damaged in an accident. Off-stage confrontations between the two Bernards are referred to and shed light on a situation fraught with sibling rivalry, personal anxiety, and uncertainty. Within the play’s five tense encounters is the realization that Salter’s sons are probing for answers that may not only explain their being but also their similarities and differences. We also begin to understand their father’s reason for doing such a thing.

The play’s most unexpected twist occurs with the arrival of a third son, Michael, who appears not only amused but completely at ease and at peace with his status as one of many. It is Michael’s open and receptive response to the otherwise stunning revelations regarding his life that provide an even more discomforting layer to the play ("We’ve got 99 percent the same genes as any other person. We’ve got 90 percent the same as a chimpanzee. We’ve got 30 percent the same as a lettuce. Does that cheer you up at all?")

The three sons are quirkily differentiated by Dallas Roberts, an excellent actor who brings an entirely different but complementary energy to the play. ***

A Number, New York Theater Workshop, 79 East 4th Street, to February 16. $65. 212-239-6200.

On Broadway

The key: **** Don’t miss; *** You won’t feel cheated; ** Maybe you should have stayed home; * Don’t blame us.

All Shook Up, Palace Theater, 1564 Broadway. Previews begin February 20.

Avenue Q, **** Golden Theater, 252 West 45.

Beauty and the Beast, *** Lunt-Fontanne Theater, Broadway & 46.

Billy Crystal: 700 Sundays, Broadhurst Theater, 235 West 44.

Brooklyn the Musical, * Plymouth Theater, 236 West 45.

Brooklyn Boy, Biltmore Theater, 261 West 47. Previews.

Chicago, *** Ambassador Theater, 219 West 49.

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Hilton Theater, 213 West 42. Opens March 27.

Dame Edna: Back With a Vengeance, Music Box Theater.

Democracy, Brooks Atkinson Theater, 256 West 47.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Imperial Theater, 249 West 45. Previews.

Fiddler on the Roof, ** Minskoff Theater, 200 West 45. Harvey Fierstein plays Tevye through March 27.

Gem of the Ocean, Walter Kerr Theater, 219 West 48. Closing February 6.

Good Vibrations, Eugene O’Neill Theater, 230 West 49. Previews.

Hairspray, *** Neil Simon Theater, 250 West 52.

Jackie Mason Freshly Squeezed, Helen Hayes Theater, 240 West 44. Preview begin March 8.

Julius Caesar, Belasco Theater, 111 West 44. Opens March 8.

La Cage Aux Folles, Marquis Theater, Broadway and West 46.

Little Women, Virginia Theater, 245 West 52.

Mamma Mia!, *** Winter Garden Theater, 1634 Broadway.

Movin’ Out, *** Richard Rodgers Theater, 226 West 46.

Rent, **** Nederlander Theater, 208 West 41.

Spamalot, Shubert Theater, 225 West 44. Previews begin February 14.

Sweet Charity, Al Hirschfeld Theater, 302 West 45. Previews begin April 4.

The Glass Menagerie, Barrymore Theater, 243 West 47. Previews begin February 24.

The Lion King, **** New Amsterdam Theater, Broadway and 42.

The Phantom of the Opera, *** Majestic Theater, 247 West 44.

The Producers, *** St. James Theater, 246 West 44.

Twelve Angry Men, ** American Airlines Theater, 227 West 42. Extended.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Longacre Theater, 220 West 48. Previews begin March 12.

Wicked *** Gershwin Theater, 222 West 51.

Ticket Numbers

Broadway and Off-Broadway reservations can be made through Tele-Charge at 800-432-7250 or 212-239-6200; Ticket Central, 212-279-4200; and Ticketmaster, 212-307-4100.

For current information on Broadway and Off-Broadway shows, music, and dance call NYC/On Stage at 212-768-1818, a 24-hour performing arts hotline .

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