Underground Railway Theater's "A Disappearing Number"
The number of well-written and intelligent plays of late has seemed like a brief series with a decidedly finite limit. Then along comes a work like “A Disappearing Number”, the latest production by Underground Railway Theater at the Central Square Theater, offering up infinite possibilities. This play, co-written and devised by Théâtre de Complicité and conceived by English playwright Simon McBurney, won the 2007 Olivier, Evening Standard and Critics Circle Awards as Best Play, and it’s easy to see why. Just under two intermissionless hours, it’s based on the real life encounter between math wizard Srinivasa Ramanujan (a sublime Jacob Athyal) from India and G. H. Hardy (a brilliant Paul Melendy), a Cambridge University don. It parallels their meeting with the story of a more modern couple, math teacher Ruth (the very enthusiastic Christine Hamel) and her hedge fund husband Al (the moving Amar Srivastava). Also in the superb cast, often in several roles, are Ekta Sagar, Sanaa Kazi, Lorne Batman, Bari Robinson and the hysterically funny Harsh Gagoomal. How the play juxtaposes their stories and keeps time-warping back and forth is one of the joys of this work. It’s complicated, complex and precise, and often loads of fun, just as math can be for some. But even if math isn’t your cup of tea, this play will still enthrall you; if math is your cuppa, your enjoyment of the work will increase exponentially.
As Directed by Elaine Vaan Hogue, the production moves with such astonishing fluidity and mathematical precision that it takes your breath away. The technical contributions are all first rate, especially the amazingly intricate Scenic Design by Jon Savage and witty Projection Design by Seaghan McKay (at one point taking us on a cab ride through throngs in India, later on a similar cab ride through the insides of a cavernous computer). The beautiful Choreography was by Aparna Sindhoor. Also extraordinarily well done are the lovely Costume Design by Leslie Held, complex Lighting Design by Tyler Lambert-Perkins, expert Sound Design by David Reiffel, and Music Direction by Brian Fairley, with the tabla, an Indian drum, played by Ryan Meyer.
Suffice it to say that you don’t need a profound understanding of the “Ramanujan summation” technique for assigning a value to infinite divergent series (infinite series that are not convergent, that is, which do not have a finite limit) which forms the basis for modern string theory. This is truly math as creative art, which even if you appreciate only a fraction of the intricacies of the plot, you will be transported. As Vaan Hogue is quoted in the program, this is a metaphor for our human curiosity and pursuit of knowledge and understanding. The atheist G. H. Hardy described a mathematician as a maker of patterns which are harmonious, where the first test of a theorem is beauty: “there is no permanent place in the world for ugly mathematics”. The believer Ramanujan stated that for him an equation “has no meaning unless it expresses a thought of God”. Despite the disparity in their world views, they found a common denominator. There are so many reasons to see this play; as one of the characters puts it, “do the math”. If there’s any justice in this mathematical world, the title “A Disappearing Number” will soon refer to the availability of tickets.