Theatre Mirror Reviews-"A Disappearing Number"

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note: entire contents copyright 2014 by Sheila Barth

"A Disappearing Number"

A Review by Sheila Barth

A bombastic amalgam of striking video backgrounds, lighting and sound effects, coupled with stirring performances, keep theatergoers rapt in Underground Railway Theatre’s production of Simon McBurney and his company, Complicite’s award-winning play, “A Disappearing Number”.

After its initial appearance in London, in 2007, the play won the 2008 Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Play; appeared in New York City’s Lincoln Center Festival in 2010; toured in Mumbai and Hyderabad and was broadcast to more than 300 international movie screens as part of NT Live. 

That doesn’t mean it’s free from flaws, though. Despite Elaine Vaan Hogue’s firm, artistic direction, “A Disappearing Number” delves too long in mathematical lectures and creates an added distraction with choreographer Aparna Sindhoor’s frequent balletic dance sequences. Humanity takes a back seat sometimes,  while wading through the onslaught of brilliant, colorful patterns, teeming Madras street scenes, aerial and railway scenes, background rain, hail, snow, etc.

The production also diminishes the focus from the fascinating relationship between writer-lecturer G.H. Hardy and his brilliant young Indian mathematician protege, Srinivasa Ramanujan.   

Whirlwind scenes unfurl rapidly, with set designer Jon Savage’s extraordinary, compartmentalized background sections revealing individuals at times. His large gray backdrop dually projects Seaghan McKay’s head-spinning video scenery, gorgeous patterns, and subtle silhouettes, while David Reiffel’s sound effects and Tyler Lambert-Perkins’ lighting mesmerize. Onstage musicians Brian Fairley and Ryan Meyer add exotic atmosphere, but also distract from dialogue.

McBurney and Complicite’s premise links mathematics, beauty and love, which is a stretch for a non-mathematician-scientist like me. Mathematics are everywhere, says lecturer Ruth Minnen (Christine Hamel), who opens the play with an inspiring, introductory delve into the magic of numbers, equations, theorems, and a new definition of infinity, claiming there’s an infinity of infinites. She sweetens it with a fun game for the audience, and her enthusiasm ensnares even us naysayers.

But that’s only one small part of this equation, and precisely what the play is intended to do - draw us into it, as it spans from 1913 to the present. There’s history, multiculturalism, and a love story, which McBurney and Co. wrap into a neat package at the end.

Like a commuter train making frequent, jarring stops, the production incorporates flashbacks and rapidly transitions forward. We step back to Trinity College don G.H. Hardy’s lectures on mathematics and his trendy new book, “A Mathematician’s Apology,” inspiring the self-taught, spiritual Ramanujan to leave home and come to London to work with him. Unfortunately, versatile actor Paul Melendy (portraying Hardy), has little opportunity to unleash his full talent, because he primarily lectures, thus side-stepping the cherished friendship and mutual admiration between the two.  On the other hand, we are sympathetically drawn to Jacob Athyal’s portrayal of Ramanujan, a devoted Brahmin, who cooked vegetarian meals for himself, worked feverishly, contracted tuberculosis, and died at age 33. 

Then, too, there’s love and romance, between brilliant lecturer Ruth Minnen and her handsome, American-born, Indian suitor-successful businessman, Al Cooper, who is instantly smitten with her, after accidentally attending one of her lectures. “I didn’t understand a word you said,” he says sheepishly.

While Ruth finds beauty, infinite joy and excitement in math and numbers, Al finds inspiration in getting her phone number and pursuing her romantically. Their love story moves along jerkily, repeating specific scenes, perhaps for emphasis, while glossing over more tender moments. 

Through a maze of scenes incorporating travel, lectures, spirits, booming voices, Hindu dance and music, we’re on a train with Ruth. She repeatedly intones she’s not coming back from India when Al expects, then collapses.  

We’re in the air, on a plane, with Al. We’re locked in a lecture room with him and can’t get out. We’re engaged in repeated cell phone conversations between him and an outsourced telephone call center, back-and-forthing with sunshiny representative Barbara Jones (Lorne Batman). Her name is “American,” so customers are unaware they’re actually calling service reps in India.  Frustrated, Al wants to change his phone number to Ruth’s, for a compelling reason, which I won’t reveal.  Harsh Gagoomal, Sanaa Kazi, Ekta Sagar, and Bari Robinson round out the cast.

BOX INFO: Underground Railway Theatre presents Complicite’s two-hour, one-act award-winning play through Nov. 16, at Central Square Theater, 450 Mass. Ave.,Cambridge. Performances:Wednesday, Thursday, at 7:30 p.m.; Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 3,8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m. Tickets start at $15. Call the Box Office at 866-811-4111 or visit Group discounts, call 617-576-9278, Ext. 210.

"A Disappearing Number" (till 16 November)
@ Central Square Theatre, 450 massachusetts Avenue, CAMBRIDGE MA

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide