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'Disappearing Number': A Vivid Theatrical Equation

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'Disappearing Number': A Vivid Theatrical Equation

Performing Arts

'Disappearing Number': A Vivid Theatrical Equation

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Mathematics, string theory, infinity, call centers in India - thats now the stuff of drama.

As Jeff Lunden reports, a play by Simon McBurney and London's Theatre Complicite tackles these subjects in a uniquely theatrical way. Called "A Disappearing Number," it opens tonight in New York.

JEFF LUNDEN: Director and author Simon McBurney likes to confront difficult subjects in his theater work. He says like a lot of people he's scared by mathematics, which is why...

Mr. SIMON MCBURNEY (Director-Playwright): I wanted to create a show in which mathematics was absolutely at the center of it.

LUNDEN: But it took a while. He got the idea for "A Disappearing Number" over a decade ago, when a friend handed him a book by a long-dead Cambridge professor named G.H. Hardy, called "A Mathematician's Apology." His friend told him...

Mr. MCBURNEY: What fascinates me about this book is how he tells us that that mathematical imagination and mathematical creativity are the same as any other artistic endeavor. I was at once hooked.

(Soundbite of play, "A Disappearing Number")

Unidentified Woman (Actor): (as Ruth) But as G.H. Hardy said, a mathematician, like a painter or poet, is a maker of patterns. And just as in poetry and painting, a mathematician's patterns must be beautiful. Beauty is the first test, he says. There is no permanent place in the world for ugly mathematics.

LUNDEN: In "A Disappearing Number," McBurney weaves together several plot strands to illuminate the beauty, patterns and mystery of mathematics. He looks at the true story of a young genius named Ramanujan, who left his poor village in India to work with Hardy in Cambridge during World War I. Ramanujan came up with formulas that are now the basis of string theory. Physicists use string theory to help explain the connection between the biggest and smallest elements of the universe.

McBurney intercuts that story with a contemporary one, about a math professor named Ruth and her husband, an Indian-born but thoroughly American futures trader named Al.

Mr. MCBURNEY: What I wanted to try and make present on the stage was a kind of emotional charge, which also comes directly through the work and through the numbers, just as it comes through the relationship and the human warmth between these people.

(Soundbite of play, "A Disappearing Number")

Unidentified Woman: (as Ruth) (Unintelligible)

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (as Al) Oh, for goodness sake, Ruthie.

Unidentified Woman: (as Ruth) No, listen. Al, imagine two lines that shoot off into infinity forever...

Unidentified Man #1: (as Al) Ruth, I got to go.

Unidentified Woman: (as Ruth) No, look. Well, listen. Al, imagine those two lines do actually meet...

Unidentified Man #1: (as Al) Right.

Unidentified Woman: (as Ruth) infinity...

Unidentified Man #1: (as Al) What are you talking about?

Unidentified Woman: (as Ruth) Well, Im, I'm, I'm saying the impossible is possible. Thats all. Now run.

Unidentified Man #1: (as Al) I haven't understood anything youve said. But Im feeling hopeful.

Unidentified Woman: (as Ruth) Well, you should. One plus a half, plus a quarter, an eighth...

Mr. MCBURNEY: And if you can see the beauty in the idea of two lines never, never, never meeting, in other words there never being an end to something, if you can hold that thought in suspension, then somewhere I think you touch on the beauty of the fabric of the nature of our lives.

LUNDEN: The storytelling fabric couldn't be more complex. Simon McBurney links Ramanujan's feeling of being a stranger in a strange land to Indians currently working in call centers, or as maids in the U.K. And he sets it all in a multimedia environment, where the actors, a live percussionist and a pair of dancers, are enveloped in almost continuous video and audio tracks.

(Soundbite of play, "A Disappearing Number")

Unidentified Man #2: One.

Unidentified Man #3: Ideas...

Unidentified Man #2: Two.

Unidentified Man #3: all human needs...

Unidentified Man #2: Four.

Unidentified Man #3:

Unidentified Man #2: Five.

Unidentified Man #3: ...sleep...

Unidentified Man #2: Six.

Unidentified Man #3: ...warmth...

Unidentified Man #2: Seven. Eight.

Unidentified Man #3: ...require a search...

Unidentified Man #2: Nine. Ten.

Unidentified Man #3: ...a going elsewhere.

Unidentified Man #2: Eleven. Twelve.

Unidentified Man #3: In our imagines...

Unidentified Man #2: Thirteen. Fourteen...

Unidentified Man #3: ...we leave the immediately present, the center of the circle. And when we do so, we begin to count.

Unidentified People: (Unintelligible)

Mr. NIGEL REDDEN (Artistic Director, Lincoln Center Festival): Simon somehow manages to make really abstract ideas become intensely human.

LUNDEN: Nigel Redden is artistic director of the Lincoln Center Festival, which is presenting "A Disappearing Number." He says McBurney makes the ideas of infinity and string theory come to life.

Mr. REDDEN: And what he does, and he does this remarkably theatrically, is he weaves all the stories together so you realize how close we are to each other, and somehow makes that a very moving and kind of visceral epiphany.

LUNDEN: Towards the end of the play, Al and Aninder, a physicist whove met purely by chance on a plane to India, stand at the banks of a river. It's where mathematician Ramanujan died, far too young at the age of 32. Both men are carrying the ashes of loved ones.

(Soundbite of play, "A Disappearing Number")

Unidentified Man #4 (Actor): (as Aninder) Now Im going to put her in the river and say my last words to her. Oh, really, Im always talking to her.

Unidentified Man #1: (as Al) On the other side of infinity, thats a barrier I can't get over. Everything makes sense but that. When you're gone, you're gone forever.

Unidentified Man #4: (as Aninder) Why not think of it like this, hmm? The numbers in infinity go on forever in all directions. But there are no gaps between the numbers, like there are no gaps in time or space - they are continuous.

Unidentified Man #1: (as Al) Continuous.

Unidentified Man #4: (as Aninder) And if time is continuous, then we are linked to the past and future. And if space is continuous, we are linked to the absent.

LUNDEN: The characters and ideas in "A Disappearing Number" will only be present for five performances at the Lincoln Center Festival, starting tonight. But the play will be shown in high-definition broadcasts at movie theaters throughout the U.S. this October.

For NPR News, Im Jeff Lunden in New York.

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