Theater Review: “A Disappearing Number” — An Encounter With Mathematical Wonder

A Disappearing Number combines mathematics and drama in ways that will enthrall some, overwhelm others, and puzzle the rest.

A Disappearing Number by Complicite (Simon McBurney and the original company). Directed by Elaine Vaan Hogue. Presented by Underground Railway Theater and Catalyst Collaborative @ MIT at the Central Square Theater, Cambridge, MA through November 16.

"A Disappearing Number" at the Central Square Theater

“A Disappearing Number” at the Central Square Theater

By Lin Haire-Sargeant and Mark Meadows

Mathematics, dealing as it does with abstract notions of form and number, might seem to have little in common with the human conflict that is the stuff of theater. Yet both concern fundamental patterns of existence. A Disappearing Number combines mathematics and drama in ways that will enthrall some, overwhelm others, and puzzle the rest. Guaranteed: after the intense, nonstop two hours and eleven minutes of this play, you will leave the theater with a mind dazzled by the wonder as well as the rock-bottom truth of numbers.

The production is energized by a number of dualities, stretching from the everyday to the eternal. The banal annoyances of life—cell phone failure, service calls from the other side of the world, airport delays, missed connections—are accompanied by moments of transcendence. Along with the staging’s depictions of the prosaic, projected Mandelbot fractal animations (inventively designed by Seaghan McKay), musical number sequences drummed on Indian instruments (played by Ryan Meyer and Brian Fairley), and Indian temple dance (choreographed by Aparna Sindhoor) communicate beauty, mathematical style.

The math story is prismed through two love plots.The remarkable main narrative is based on true events that occurred a hundred years ago. Srinivasa Ramanujan (played by Jacob Athyal), a poor clerk who lived in India early in the twentieth century, was one of the of the greatest mathematical geniuses of all time. Yet he would never have been discovered had he not mailed an envelope filled with his formulas to leading professors at Cambridge University. The third man he tried, G.H. Hardy (Paul Melendy), noticed their vital importance and was determined to have Ramanujan travel to England. The result was what the academic called the one “romantic incident” in his ivory tower life. Romantic on several levels: intellectual, mathematical, and perhaps even a hint of erotic attraction.

Melendy delivers a convincing portrait of the mannered, pipe-sucking, and eccentric don. However, the play’s depiction of Ramanujan is less persuasive. We want the man opened up to us: to learn how he saw the world, how his strange mind developed. These are unanswered questions. Even the pathos of Ramanujan’s cold and hungry life in England is scanted. Further, he is abstracted from the audience during much of the play by a screen that shows him in silhouette. Even when Athyal appears on stage, his lines are often delivered by amplified voice-over. These odd devices are not just distancing but off-putting: we are told by several characters that Ramanujan was among the greatest thinkers who ever lived, but we are left with an impression of a sickly young man of no compelling interest.

Far stronger is the modern romance between Al and Ruth. Al Cooper, played with winning freshness by Amar Srivastava, is an American hedge-fund financer of Indian ancestry who falls in love with British math professor Ruth Minnen (Christine Hamel), at London’s Brunel University. Al meets Ruth when she presents a bravura mathematical talk on number series, an aspect of math that Ramanujan explored. Al is as mystified as most of the audience members, but nevertheless intrigued enough to ask for the only number he wants: Ruth’s phone number.

Clearly this romance is to be juxtaposed with the relationship between Hardy and Ramanujan. It’s not a spoiler to reveal that both Ruth and Ramanujan die during the course of the play; the moments of their deaths happen onstage and are repeated almost obsessively. Later, after Ruth’s death, Al returns to her lecture hall to collect a carton of her belongings and is locked inside the room because of a power fluke. His overnight ordeal spans the play. He places her small leavings on an overhead projector—a piece of chalk, a drugstore pregnancy test, a dead bee. Contemplating them sparks Al’s memories of random moments in their shared life—the exuberance of their engagement, the grief over their lost child. These memories are evoked with great sensitivity and power, made the greater by the starkness of the setting.

In contrast to the eternality of mathematics, the trapped room incident and the premature deaths of Ruth and Ramanujan comment on the vulnerability of humans to random and irrational situations.There are many suggestions of numbers’ solidity, including Ruth’s blackboard explanations of infinite series and the Mandelbrot fractal projections.

Does A Disappearing Number make sense of its dramatic connections? The association between the two stories of Ramanujan/Hardy and Ruth/Al is clear enough. Strong, too, is the connection of India, as well as mathematics, to the overall vision of the script. Mathematical concepts such as infinity have often been associated with the ancient culture of India; Indian dance and music effectively dramatize this part of the story. Ironically, the Indian resonances make for the liveliest part of the evening, overwhelming the play’s thin portrayal of Ramanujan. But perhaps Ramanujan’s sketchiness is intended to suggest our fragmented, interrupted, enigmatic existence. Chance links us in ways seen only in the patterns we discover. It could be Complicite is intimating that drama is as open-ended as life — we have yet to discover how Ramanujan fits into the puzzle.

Lin Haire-Sargeant directs the MassArt Playwriting Workshop, which gathers Boston-area playwrights and actors together every two weeks to read and critique new work. A novelist (H.—The Story of Heathcliff’s Journey Back to Wuthering Heights) and playwright (Dead; Green Pastures), Lin is Professor of Literature and Writing at Massachusetts College of Art and Design.

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