A Disappearing Number
Timeline Theatre Company tells a story of love, loss, and mathematics.
A word to the math-averse: Yes, A Disappearing Number is a play about pure theoretical math, but it is presented with such artistry and humanity that even staunch right-brain thinkers will be taken in. Timeline Theatre Company, now in its 20th season, is working at a remarkable level of ambition and complexity with this production. Originally devised and produced by London's Complicite ensemble, the play tells many intertwining, nonlinear stories in just under two hours.
In 1913, Ramanujan (Siddhartha Rajan), a clerk at the Madras Port Trust in India, begins a correspondence with renowned Cambridge mathematician E.H. Hardy (Dennis William Grimes), who quickly recognizes Ramanujan as a genius and sponsors his relocation to England to continue his mathematic work. In the modern day, mathematics professor Ruth (Juliet Hart) is fixated on re-creating the events of Ramanujan's brief and brilliant life, while her lover, the financier Al (Kareem Bandealy), traces her steps in an attempt to understand the obsession that drives her away from their home. Along the way, Al meets Aninda (Anish Jethmalani), a physicist who believes that Ramanujan's work holds the key to a deeper understanding of string theory.
Their stories twist and turn around one another, as text, movement, music, and video multiply together and divide again, seemingly as complex and meticulous as Ramanujan's proofs. The set, designed by William Boles, seems very simple at first. But every inch of it is designed to spring into life, and it does, courtesy of Rachel Levy's phantasmal lighting design and Rasean Davonte Johnson's projections. As the story jumps between centuries and continents, the simple but definitive costuming by Sally Dolembo helps clarify the many roles of the versatile and athletic ensemble.
In a play full of abstract thinkers, Kareem Bandealy's Al stays on solid ground. Bandealy gives him an incredibly tender heart, playing heartbreak and hope with equal nuance. His love for Ruth is palpable, and Hart is every bit as expressive in their shared scenes. When she waxes poetic about the simplicity and beauty in equations, it's hard to disagree with her. The other central relationship, between Hardy and Ramajudan, is primarily addressed directly to the audience through diary entries and correspondence. As such, Grimes and Rajan never quite develop a rapport between each other, though they both give admirable performances.
The story returns again and again to one subject of Ramanujan and Hardy's collaboration: the concept of infinity. That idea frightens the practical Al, but to Ruth, it's just another theoretical concept. Aninda is seeking a unifying theory to connect infinite points. And for Ramanujan, mathematics itself is an expression of the infinite. "An equation for me has no meaning," he wrote, "unless it expresses a thought of God."
A Disappearing Number is about love, never more so than when exploring a mathematician's love of his or her work. Near the beginning of the play, Hardy calls Ramanujan "the most romantic figure in the recent history of mathematics." In that moment, it seems like an odd description. But when his story is done, it all adds up.