Higher mathematics seems to be on a roll lately in the entertainment arena, given the evidence of “Proof,” “Copenhagen” and the films “Pi” and “A Beautiful Mind.” It still seems an unlikely wellspring of human interest, an assumption again overturned by Ira Hauptman’s “Partition.” Inspired by the real-life liaison between two famed mathematicians in Edwardian England, this deftly imagined, multileveled drama emerges a small jewel in Barbara Oliver’s Aurora Theater premiere production.
A highly eccentric individual –capable of enthusiastic public lectures, but terrified of mirrors, cameras and physical (not to mention sexual) contact — Cambridge mathematician G.H. Hardy “discovered” Ramanujan in 1913. The young Indian clerk was an apparent savant who’d received some formal education but seemed to acquire extraordinary ability to devise formulae (some previously unknown, some previously discovered unbeknownst to him) all on his own. He came to Britain the next year, but the cold, damp climate and other factors wore down his health, finally resulting in his death in 1920 at the age of 33.
The escalating crisis of Ramanujan’s U.K. stay is signaled straight off, a bit heavy-handedly, as the play opens with his being sprung from jail after a railroad-track suicide attempt in 1918 — the devout, vegetarian Hindu had become so feverishly overwrought that he believed his drinking of Ovaltine (which contained animal products) had directly resulted in a WWII German air raid.
Hauptman then rewinds to a speech Hardy (David Arrow) gave to the London Mathematical Society five years earlier, in which his academic purism is announced by the statement that applied math is not true math “because it is ugly. … I believe in math for art’s sake.” His best (perhaps only) friend, older colleague Billington (Chris Ayles), wryly later adds, “Of course, math will outlast Shakespeare — the vernacular is a passing fad!”
Into this ivory tower of irony and elitism walks wide-eyed Ramanujan (Rahul Gupta), who’s extravagantly grateful for the opportunity Hardy has provided — to the latter’s intense discomfort. (Hardy is so neurotic he can’t even handle direct eye contact.) Their mutual admiration soon runs into a roadblock, however, as it becomes clear that the foreigner never really learns about the necessity (by Western academic standards) for proofs. Indeed, he believes theorems simply flower whole in his head, a divine gift from the gods — or rather one goddess, the regional deity Namagiri (Rachel Rajput), whom he holds so important that she is his mind’s-eye confessor and travel companion. Would one question a god’s gifts, or ask for “proof” of their value? The very concept is beyond his comprehension.
By contrast, the staunch atheist Hardy lives for academic methodology, the competitive proving or disproving of ideas, without which they don’t really exist for him. This clash in fundamental values has desperate consequences for Ramanujan .
Appearances by the feisty immortal Namagiri and dead but still vainglorious Fermat lend “Partition” a Stoppardian free-flow of humor, fantasy, philosophy and fourth-wall-breaking. The mix is generally so delightful that when Hauptman abruptly yanks all extras for Hardy’s final, stricken curtain speech — where he reveals the true depth of his isolation from and longing for human contact — the shift is quietly devastating.
Oliver’s dextrous staging makes a tricky text fly by the simplest, most stripped-down theatrical means, and for the most part her cast makes the imaginative leap in fine style as well. Arrow is especially notable as Hardy, his tortured physical shyness and deliciously extreme upper-class phrasing hitting just the right mark between pathos and caricature.