Review: “A Disappearing Number”

Math professor Ruth (Juliet Hart, center) inspires her class with numbers, as her would-be suitor Al (Kareem Bandealy, upper right) looks on in interest.
Photo by Lara Goetsch


Where: TimeLine Theatre Company, 615 W. Wellington Ave.
When: through Apr. 9
Tickets: $22-$51
Phone: 773-281-8463

Theater Critic

You don’t have to be a math aficionado to appreciate “A Disappearing Number” at TimeLine Theatre Company, but I suspect it helps. Otherwise the intricacies and beauties of the theories and proofs in the 2007 one act, which was originally created by Simon McBurney and his British collective Complicité and is directed for its Chicago premiere by Nick Bowling, may be baffling enough to bog down the evening.

One potential source of confusion is that the play jumps around in time and space—TimeLine loves plays that jump around in time and space—as it interweaves two stories of love and loss while tackling big questions about the meaning of existence and mysteries of the cosmos. One plot line is based on the true tale of Srinivasa Ramanujan (Siddhartha Rajan), a largely self-taught Brahmin math genius in rural India, who in 1913 wrote a letter to famous Cambridge mathematician G.H. Hardy (Dennis William Grimes) resulting in an invitation to come to England. The other, which is fictional, charts the modern-day romance between Ruth (Juliet Hart), a math professor captivated by Ramanujan’s work, and Al Cooper (Kareem Bandealy), a businessman who wanders into her classroom accidentally on purpose.

The action actually starts in Ruth’s classroom with her explaining prime numbers and other increasingly complex concepts to students who hopefully aren’t as clueless as some of us are. Then an actor, Anish Jethmalani, who plays Aninda, a physicist and proponent of string theory who later helps pull the threads of the story together, breaks the “fourth wall” to tell us that all the math in the play is “real,” unlike most of what we’ll see.

I didn’t see Complicité’s production, but Bowling’s alley staging relies on the smooth functioning of a lot of elements plus our imagination. There’s the necessarily fluid scenic design by William Boles, lighting by Rachel Levy, sound design by Mikhail Fiksel, and projection design by Rasean Davonte Johnson to take us everywhere from a railroad train to a river bank. Adding color and texture are the costumes by Sally Dolembo, props by Vivian Knouse, choreography by William Carlos Angulo, and original music by Ronnie Malley, Bob Garrett and Fiksel. On opening night, some of the sound—especially Ruth’s microphone—wasn’t working quite right.

Mounting scenes at opposite ends of the “alley” defines the locations, even if we sometimes feel like we’re following a ping pong ball. Ramanujan’s trajectory takes him from his rural home and family at one end to his Cambridge digs with piles of books at the other. Rajan, a recent Roosevelt University graduate making an impressive TimeLine debut, brings the troubled young man to life, though his deteriorating health (as a strict vegetarian, he found it hard to get proper food in England, and he had TB) and drive to continue and record his discoveries overshadow his interaction with the reserved Hardy, who more often than not just tells us about their meetings. In addition, Ramanujan’s suicide attempt isn’t presented clearly, and after he returns to India in 1919, all we learn is that his health continues to decline and he dies in 1920 at the age of 32.

Ruth and Al’s time-tripping love story also takes a couple of tragic turns as they court, marry, and try to start a family. The crucial decision is her solo trip to India to research Ramanujan and see a volume of his proofs, a course Al later follows in his continuing effort to understand his wife’s love of mathematics. Along the way, Al meets Aninda and he—and we—get a lesson in how everything is connected.

So, at this point, I have to say that the little voice in the back of my head is shouting “hogwash.” All the mystical connectivity and reverence for numbers, mathematical patterns, etc. is well and good, but if the two love stories were presented straightforwardly, they wouldn’t seem extraordinary.

In truth, what I like best about “A Disappearing Number”–besides the performances, which all are first rate—is the healthy dose of humor. In one scene, Al, whose company is involved with call centers in Bangalore, is accidentally locked in Ruth’s office and is on his cell phone with “Barbara Jones” (the marvelous Arya Daire) at just such a call center trying to switch the cell phone number from his wife’s name to his. Ms. Jones, who doesn’t understand that the number itself has meaning for him, sets about getting him a new one, and their hilarious conversations are fraught with the frustrations that anyone who has ever talked to the phone company will recognize—and that, like the old Mike Nichols and Elaine May routine, are worth the price of admission.