At the start of A DISAPPEARING NUMBER, a British professor named Ruth tells the audience, “I’d like to go through a few mathematical sequences.”
Yes, there IS math on this test. Even an actress as magnetic and inviting as Juliet Hart can’t stop math-challenged viewers from freezing in terror. But we have nothing to fear. A DISAPPEARING NUMBER is a test of the imagination. It’s just helpful to keep track of a few numbers along the way.
TimeLine does justice to Complicite
A DISAPPEARING NUMBER was created by the remarkable Complicite, a London-based theater collective renowned for its visually ingenious productions. Working with more limited space and resources, TimeLine does justice to A DISAPPEARING NUMBER, originally conceived by Complicite Artistic Director Simon McBurney and directed here by Nick Bowling.
A DISAPPEARING NUMBER stirs the heart and the mind
Entering TimeLine’s small foyer, we see the floor covered in mathematical formulas. They’re incomprehensible to lay people but signify the journey ahead. Weaving a personal romance with intellectual puzzles, A DISAPPEARING NUMBER stirs both the heart and the mind as it strives to link math and beauty, past and present, fact and fiction.
Al, an American businessman of Indian descent (a forthright and disarming Kareem Bandealy), wanders into Ruth’s London classroom while attending a conference. Pondering an equation for infinity, Al falls hard for the comely instructor. It takes some doing to finagle a phone number, though not because she’s a cool scientist. As Hart plays her, Ruth exudes warmth and excitement. Al succeeds in getting her number, one that becomes more meaningful as the play progresses.
No place for ugly math
The parallel story is rooted in history: In 1913, the British mathematician G.H. Hardy received a letter full of brilliant theorems from Srinivasa Ramanujan, an obscure 23-year-old Brahmin in rural India. After some persuasion, Ramanujan traveled to Cambridge where Hardy took him on as a protégé. In this dramatization of their scientific bond, Siddhartha Rajan’s lean and anxious Ramanujan is a stark contrast to Dennis William Grimes’ robust and expansive Hardy.
According to Hardy, “there is no permanent place in the world for ugly mathematics.” Beauty in math is hard for most of us to grasp but beauty on TimeLine’s stage is not. Rolling desks, chairs and a staircase move characters across countries as projections take us to rivers, skies and city streets. Ruth’s pregnancy is indicated by a glowing sphere under her shirt. Her sudden death on a train in India replays from different angles with increasing clarity. Inadvertently locked overnight in her lecture hall, Al sorts through Ruth’s personal items by the light of an overhead projector.
TimeLine’s production keeps gliding
A DISAPPEARING NUMBER is a complex fabric of ideas. But not all of its numerous storylines create – as the play’s mathematicians would have it – a pattern that connects everything. Al and Ruth are deeply and resonantly drawn. The East-West friendship between Ramanujan and Hardy, however, doesn’t fully satisfy. Neither does the globetrotting physicist Aninda (Anish Jethmalani) who keeps crossing paths with Al in his pursuit of string theory.
Jethmalani, along with multi-tasking Anu Bhatt, Arya Daire and Joseph Sultani, round out the stellar cast. William Boles’ set, Rachel Levy’s lighting and Rasean Davonte Johnson’s projections evocatively support Bowlings’ direction. All of these talents do much to clarify the play’s weighty contents and keep them gliding forward. Sometimes reaching beyond its grasp, A DISAPPEARING NUMBER is nonetheless a worthy test of our imaginations.
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About the Author
Susan Lieberman is a playwright, journalist and script consultant who commits most of her waking hours to Chicago theatre. Her Jeff-winning play Arrangement for Two Violas will be published by Chicago Dramaworks in spring 2017.