You may have heard that Caryl Churchill's remarkable new play, ''A Number," now receiving its Boston premiere in a stark and powerful production at the Lyric Stage Company, is about cloning. It's not. It's about identity, relationships, and what it means to be alive.
To be sure, the plot involves cloning, or at least some kind of not-quite-invented-yet technique for creating exact genetic replicas of a human being. But Churchill never uses the word ''clone" in the play's densely packed 65 minutes, nor does she seem much interested in exactly how a man named Salter came to have 20 copies of his son, Bernard. What she wants us to think about is why.
She is too intelligent and strong a playwright, however, to come at us straight with expository discussions of the father's motives and what they do to the sons. Rather, in a series of brilliantly wrought, spare, and haunting scenes, she gives us the indelible story of a tragically misguided pragmatist and the desolation his selfishness creates.
What Salter wants -- and it's worth noting here that we know his name and those of his sons only from the program, for Churchill pointedly never has them say each other's names -- is a chance to repair his mistakes as a father by starting over with the ''same" son. But his blind, fatal error is his failure to understand that what makes us who we are is more than our genes; ultimately, as Churchill persuasively but never overtly argues, we are created by our love for other people. It is only in relationships that we become fully human, and so Salter, focused narcissistically on his past behavior rather than on his sons' present lives or future happiness, is doomed to be less human than the offspring he carelessly thinks of as ''things."
All this might veer dangerously into intellectual argument rather than drama, were it not for the taut language and incisively rendered interactions in every scene. And, of course, ''A Number" requires virtuoso actors. Fortunately, the Lyric's producing artistic director, Spiro Veloudos, who directs this production with nuance and restraint, has found two -- only two! -- local actors with the intelligence and passion to carry it off.
Lewis D. Wheeler gets the flashier assignment, as he's called upon to portray all three of the 21 sons Churchill introduces and to show us both how they're alike and how they're radically, irreducibly different. He meets the challenge magnificently, creating a raw and brooding cockney for the dangerous ''original" Bernard; a nervous, sweet upper-middle-class Brit for the first copy, also named Bernard, who unlike his older brother has been raised lovingly by their father; and a blandly affable American for another replica, Michael Black, who meets the father as a stranger.
Wheeler's achievement goes beyond mere technical virtuosity; he gives us three real human beings, three sons connecting in painfully different ways with their father. And his partner onstage, Steve McConnell, works at the same high level. Salter is not a likable man -- he's materialistic and cruelly cold without realizing it, which makes him even colder -- and McConnell deftly conveys his flaws without letting us dismiss his suffering. His Salter is a genuinely tragic figure: a man who comes to see his defects only when they have destroyed him.
Veloudos wisely lets these two fine actors work out their relationships together in a simple, vaguely ominous gray setting by Skip Curtiss, with matching ominous lighting by Robert Cordella and ominous music by Dewey Dellay. The entire production works coherently to realize Churchill's paradoxically grim and life-affirming vision: Flawed humans contort scientific progress to selfish ends, and so destroy their own humanity. And yet, somehow, if only we see each other through loving eyes, we can still be human.
Louise Kennedy can be reached at email@example.com.