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A Disappearing Number

Simon McBurney's challenging opus about pure math is a thrilling, thrilling, thrilling play.

Saskia Reeves in A Disappearing Number
(© Joris-Jan Bos Photography)
To make a longish story short, A Disappearing Number, which is being presented for a short run by the Lincoln Center Festival 2010 and the David H. Koch Theater, is a thrilling, thrilling, thrilling play -- perhaps a surprising statement for a work about mathematics, a subject that can instantly make eyes around the globe glaze over.

Created by Simon McBurney and his company Complicite, the admittedly challenging opus is specifically concerned with pure math -- the strictly cerebral kind distinct from more or less everyday applied math. The intermissionless 110-minute work even begins with a woman called Ruth Minnen (a giggling, committed Saskia Reeves) delivering -- with delight she only hopes she can transmit to the audience -- a lecture on prime numbers, number sequences and series, and the indisputable mathematical fact that, when numbers come into play, there isn't just an infinity of them but an infinity of infinities.

Are you lost already? Not to worry. That's how McBurney wants audiences to feel as he goes about devising a "Math for Dummies" multimedia effort. His intention is to draw spectators inexorably into the love of numbers that he has acquired since starting this project, and his strategy is to offer scholarly explanations that may or may not take permanent hold but are really the springboard for a juicy diversion on the reality of immutable numbers as contrasted with the reality of emotionally-vacillating daily life.

To deliver the irresistible math folderol, McBurney and his troupe tell two stories. The first follows Minnen and admirer/eventual husband Al Cooper (a fervent Firdous Bamji), who bond deeply despite her devotion to math and his ignorance in the face of it. The second has to do with revered Cambridge don G. H. Hardy (the stern David Annen), who wrote the book A Mathematician's Apology which inspired McBurney to plunge into this dense territory.

When Hardy lectures, he is addressing academics in 1936 about events that began unfolding in 1913. That's when he received a letter from a young Indian man, Srinivasa Ramanujan, and found in it numerous mathematical equations, which -- when Hardy had analyzed the theorems presented with no proofs -- reveal the sender to be a self-taught math genius. Thereafter, Hardy becomes so determined to work with Ramanujan that he convinces the Cambridge University money-bags to bring the man to England and convinces the reluctant prodigy to forsake the Brahmin laws banning travel.

An amalgam of clever sets (by Michael Levine), colorful costumes (by Christina Cunningham), often high-wattage lighting (by Paul Anderson) and projections ranging from equations floating in dark space to a madcap taxi ride through downtown Madras (by Sven Ortel) help make sure there's never a dull moment in this potentially dull work. Indeed, leave it to the ingenious McBurney to establish that numbers, like life, are never cut-and-dried.


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