Time and space. The abstraction and reality of mathematics. The complexity of patterns. Universal connectivity. Creativity. Cultural dissonance. Immortality. Infinity.
How’s that for a list of some of the biggest ideas to bedevil the human mind?
Now imagine this: A brilliant theatrical venture that not only illuminates each and every one of these notions in the most rigorous yet accessible way, but does so by unspooling a superbly multi-layered, deeply human story laced with immense emotional depth, great bursts of humor, a magical infusion of musical and choreographic accents, and such compelling performances that you have no doubt the actors could pass the most challenging exams even without the aid of their scripts.
I confess: I’ve been in love with “A Disappearing Number” — a work created by English actor-playwright Simon Burney and his remarkable Theatre de Complicite ensemble — ever since I saw it in its original edition in 2008. And I was anxious about seeing it again in its “new” (gently updated) production by TimeLine Theatre, despite the fact that Chicago director Nick Bowling is one of the smartest, most incisive directors around. My worries were entirely unfounded. This is a stunning take on a supremely modern work — one that demands (and receives) its own touch of genius.
Julie Hart plays Ruth, a mathematics professor, in the TimeLine Theatre production of “A Disappearing Number.” (Photo: Joe Mazza)
Based on a true story, the play recounts the professional relationship between two of the most exceptional mathematicians of the early 20th century — the classically educated Cambridge University lecturer, G. H. Hardy (Dennis William Grimes in an aptly reserved turn), and the much younger, self-taught Brahmin Indian, Srinivasa Ramanujan (a mightily impressive debut by Siddharthan Rajan, who only graduated from Roosevelt University last spring, and whose graceful, Gandhi-thin physique could not be more ideal for the role). Long before super computers, Ramanujan generated an uncanny number of enduring theories and proofs that seemed to leap spontaneously and instinctively from a rare sort of hyper-intelligence.
But McBurney also has gorgeously intertwined these mathematicians’ cross-cultural (and cross-generational) collaboration with a more contemporary fictional story that brings theory down to Earth. That story involves the complex love affair between a brilliant mathematics professor and devotee of Ramanujan’s work, Ruth (Juliet Hart in a sensational, razor sharp performance), and a “frequent flier” Indian-American businessman, Al (quicksilver work by Kareem Bandealy), whose company is involved with call centers in Bangalore, and whose own interaction with a British Telecom customer service agent (played with pure vocal enchantment by Arya Daire) provides some of the show’s biggest laughs. Along the way, Anu Bhatt turns in multiple winning turns, including one as an Anglo-Indian post-grad working a menial job to pay back her university loans, and Anish Jethmalani helps bring the whole story full circle as a physicist whose work on string theory draws heavily on Ramanujan’s earlier proofs.
Amid all the social commentary here, there is tragedy. Ramanujan died before he reached the age of 33 — the victim of cultural dislocation, his workaholic drive, the calamities of World War I, and tuberculosis brought on in part by a body weakened by strict vegetarianism. Ruth, who heard her biological clock ticking, suffers her own collapse. There is a reason that the notion of legacy is everywhere here.
Along with the show’s enthralling, winningly playful approach to pure mathematics, “A Disappearing Number” considers everything from patterns of immigration and the mystery of romantic attraction to hotel porn.
W. H. Hardy wrote: “The mathematician’s patterns, like the painter’s or the poet’s, must be beautiful ; the ideas like the colors or the words, must fit together in a harmonious way. Beauty is the first test: there is no permanent place in the world for ugly mathematics.”
“A Disappearing Number,” which takes us from the birth of ideas to the ashes of mortality in less than two flawless hours, could not be more beautiful.
Siddhartha Rajan plays the brilliant India mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan in the TimeLine Theatre production of “A Disappearing Number.” (Photo: Lara Goetsch)