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Math Problem

A play about mathematicians fails to connect emotionally

Devika Bhise (left) and thom Eric Sinn (right) vex Maboud Ebrahimzadeh.

By Phyllis Zhu | Posted 3/17/2010


By Ira Hauptman

Through March 28 at Spotlighters Theatre

No matter how hard Spotlighters' Partition denies being a play about math, it leaves you, in the end, with only the unsatisfactory aftertaste of irrational numbers and theorems. Written by Ira Hauptman, the play is based on the real life of the brilliant, self-taught mathematician, Srinivasa Ramanujan, who traveled from India to Cambridge University in the 1910s to work under Professor G. H. Hardy. While director John Sadowsky tries to use the mathematical term "partition"--meaning an expression of a number as one or more whole numbers (1 1 2=4 is a partition)--to symbolize other conflicts in the play, the comparison falls short, as you're left puzzling over the formulas as well as the authenticity of the characters' relationships with one another.

The first scene opens dramatically with Ramanujan (Maboud Ebrahimzadeh) on the floor with his kurta and dhoti--traditional Indian men's dress--disheveled and covered in oil stains after having tried to throw himself under a train. When a police officer (Andrew Keating) asks him what happened, he explains, "Ovaltine," which apparently contains animal products forbidden by Hinduism. We learn that Ramanujan is the first Indian to be elected a fellow of Trinity College at Cambridge and also that he is in England to work with the callous yet easily angered G. H. Hardy (Ivan Zizek), who sprays globs of spit and gives high-pitched, frenzied spiels on almost everything. Recognizing the genius of Ramanujan, Hardy becomes jealous and sends Ramanujan on an impossible mathematical quest to prove an unfinished theorem by Pierre de Fermat (Thom Eric Sinn), a famous French mathematician, who appears as a ghost in the play. Hardy then abandons his colleague to his numbers instead of working with him, much to the disapproval of Ramanujan's other more compassionate advisor, the fictional Alfred Billington (Fred Nelson).

There's no doubt that Ramanujan is one smart fellow who can whip up beautiful theorems from nowhere, but he lacks common sense. Like the stereotypical calculator-wielding nerd, Ramanujan forgets to eat and stay warm, since he is too excited about his math, though the Indian goddess Namagiri Lakshmi (Devika Bhise) is there to look after him in his lonely crusade.

The problem isn't the math. It's easily ignored, but when you take away the numbers, what you have left is little substance to hold the story together. From the beginning, there is no emotional attachment to any of the characters, so when Zizek tears up for the emotional climax of Partition it comes off as affected. Some aspects of the culture clash are portrayed well, like when Ramanujan bashfully points out that he can't dine with the others wearing his traditional dress and when he is insulted when his advisors refuse his work as a form of repaying their hospitality. Others, however, like the opening Ovaltine-suicide scene, seem too dramatic and out-of-place for the play, which is, for the most part, an emotional flatline.

Zizek and Ebrahimzadeh are convincing in their passions, but only as their individual characters. When talking with other characters, the tempo is out-of-whack, particularly between Ebrahimzadeh and Bhise, who is a first-timer at Spotlighters. While Bhise's character is supposed to be an elegant, composed goddess, her coolness borders on apathy.

It seems Hauptman included the ghost of Fermat for nothing more than to prolong the monotony of the two-hour, 30-minute performance.

Math may not be your thing, but the problem with Partition is not in the numbers.

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