A woman covers a whiteboard with mathematical formulas, announcing she will go through them “so the recurrent themes are clear to you all.” Simon McBurney cannot be accused of stinting on or obscuring metaphysical ideas at play in his new piece. “A Disappearing Number” juggles applied vs. pure mathematics, the purity of numbers vs. the accidents of life, East-West cultural (long) division. … Yet despite dexterous theatrical juxtapositions — McBurney’s enviable trademark — the result feels like intellectual plate-spinning. In dramatic terms, it’s worryingly inert.
Just as David Auburn’s play “Proof” counterbalanced varying meanings of its title in terms of its mathematical meaning and its more common usage of providing evidence, so McBurney is interested in divergent meanings of “infinity.”
For English Ruth (Saskia Reeves), infinity is a theoretical position into which numbers build. For Al, the Asian-American businessman who meets and marries her, infinity is a spiritual place.
Their story — told unrevealingly out of chronological sequence — is interleaved with others. The most important, though almost always presented far upstage, is of Srinivasa Ramanujan, a real-life, self-taught maverick whose theories took him from obscurity to a friendship with the English mathematician G.H. Hardy in Cambridge in the early 20th century.
Ramanujan’s theories not only form the basis of Ruth’s work, they also underpin current thinking on string theory. The latter, itself a theory of interconnectedness, forms the basis for the character of a physicist (Paul Bhattacharjee).
Bhattacharjee also acts as narrator, beginning the evening with, surprisingly for this most sophisticated of theater companies, standard-issue observations about how they are not really characters, but actors. In past productions, that self-awareness has paid thrilling dramatic dividends. Here it feels like a tired reflex response, merely paving the way, unnecessarily, for deft ensemble playing.
The patterning at the root of much mathematical thinking is expertly mirrored by McBurney’s production. Michael Levine’s neatly bald design allows actors seamlessly to melt in and out of highly effective video projections of differing locations — an innocuous lecture hall, hectic Madras, austere Cambridge, landscapes rushing by on train journeys.
At other points, projections are more evocatively poetic, as with reversed-out numerals that appear to snow down across the walls and the faces of the actors.
The beauty of the sophisticated imagery notwithstanding, an increasingly arid air of contrivance hangs over the proceedings as coincidences and complications of everything from taxi and telephone numbers are posited.
Momentum grows increasingly sluggish as McBurney appears unable to stop making linkages that prove more linguistic than dramatic. Al, we discover, works in the futures market, an unexplored idea that feels as if it is presented solely to fit McBurney’s stated concerns with past and present.
Even when the principal story arc of Al and Ruth’s relationship goes though miscarriage to sad early death, the constant paralleling of other plots disengages auds from the proceedings. Constantly made aware of the production’s workings, even impressed auds are likely to be left unmoved by its disappointing sum.