'Disappearing Number': A Vivid Theatrical Equation The Olivier Award-winning play from Simon McBurney and London's Theatre Complicite will have five performances, starting Thursday, during the Lincoln Center Festival in New York.

'Disappearing Number': A Vivid Theatrical Equation

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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...

SIMON MCBURNEY: 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...

MCBURNEY: 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: 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.

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


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

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

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: Unidentified People: (Unintelligible)


NIGEL REDDEN: 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.

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


MCBURNEY: 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: For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

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