July 21, 2010

Why "A Disappearing Number" Doesn't Add Up

“So what part of the theater are you involved in?” asked the puppyish young man in the seat next to mine at A Disappearing Number, the challenging British production that made a brief appearance last weekend as part of this month’s Lincoln Center Festival. His question seemed to suggest that only theater insiders (he confirmed my guess that he was an actor) would want to see the show. And I have to confess that it did take me a while to make up my mind about whether I wanted to go.

On the one hand, the play is the creation of Complicite, the experimental British company that is a chief proponent of the highly stylized, multimedia approach to theatermaking that I’ve come to love.  On the other hand, its subject is mathematics, which I haven’t loved since 12th grade calculus and which has never struck me as inherently theatrical.  But on yet another hand, the play won the Critics Circle, London Standard and Olivier awards for the Best New Play of 2007.  That made the final count two hands to one. So I bought the ticket.

I’m not sorry I did.  I’m very seldom sorry whenever I go to the theater.  But I can’t say I had a  good time either.  A Disappearing Number follows two loosely connected storylines.  One involves the scholarly relationship that began in 1914 between the Cambridge mathematician G.H. Hardy and Srinivasa Ramanujan, a brilliant Indian autodidact who made valuable contributions to number theory before he died in 1920 at just 33.

An almost self-consciously parallel plot follows the contemporary love story between a female mathematician and an Indian-American hedge fund manager. The action jumps back and forth between continents and multiple periods in time. There are allusions to chaos theory, the joys of creativity, globalization, immigration and the human need to connect. All heady stuff.  But, as presented, too heady for me.

Complicite, under the direction of its co-founder Simon McBurney, employed its trademark creative stagecraft.  There were dazzling video projections, evocative lighting, an onstage musician playing Indian instruments and actors who performed traditional Indian dance steps. The entire eight-member cast, half of whom took on multiple roles, was excellent. (Click here to hear an NPR interview with McBurney about the genesis of the show.)

But because the underlying world of high-level math is foreign territory for most viewers, a great deal of the 110-minute show (which is performed without intermission) has to be devoted to exposition, which despite the best efforts of the actors and a few self-deprecating jokes quickly lost my interest. The jumping back and forth further undermined my ability to establish empathy with any of the characters. Some critics found the show mesmerizing.  All the talk and the overlapping and repetitive action put me in a trance too, but it was a soporific one.

The young actor in the seat next to me leaned forward when the play began, eagerly laughed at the funny lines and nodded in agreement to the more thought-provoking ones. But as the show went on, he, too, occasionally nodded off. In alert moments, he checked his watch.  Still when the show ended, he leapt out of his seat to lead the applause.

The New York Times critic Charles Isherwood, who I'm certain stayed awake all the way through, liked it even more.  In fact, he seemed to particularly appreciate the way the play “avoids linear storytelling, creating instead more complicated spatial and temporal patterns, refracting the narrative to mirror the complex ideas being discussed.” (Click here to read his entire review.)

I like being mentally challenged too. But I also like to be entertained and A Disappearing Number didn’t add up that way for me.  But you can judge for yourself because the production will be coming to a Cineplex near you as part of next season’s NT Live series that broadcasts stage productions to movie theaters around the world (click here to read my thoughts about those productions). The date for this one is already set for Oct. 14.

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