A First Class Man
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 7, 2006
A First Class Man is the most compelling, smart, and intellectually stimulating play I've seen so far this season. This world premiere production from ALTEREGO Productions, directed by Kareem Fahmy, is magnificent. Kudos to everyone involved.
The subject of this beautiful play is Srinivasa Ramanujan, an Indian man who taught himself mathematics (from a century-old obsolete textbook) and discovered (or re-discovered, for much of his work in India had already been done, unbeknownst to him, by Europeans) an astonishing amount of advanced math and number theory. Ramanujan eventually came to the attention of a Cambridge professor named G.H. Hardy who recognized the genius of this untutored but extraordinarily intuitive mind. Hardy brought Ramanujan to England to collaborate. A First Class Man tells what happened when East met West. It's a story of culture clash, and of the tragic results of a Pygmalion/Elephant Man experiment. It's also, unexpectedly, a love story.
Playwright David Freeman does a number of really remarkable things in this play. First, he takes arcane mathematical research and makes it not only accessible, but downright thrilling. In order to convince his skeptical Cambridge colleagues that an uneducated (by their standards) Hindu from India belongs at the university, Hardy sets up a contest of sorts, in which Ramanujan will determine the partition of the number 200 while a team of students work together to do the same task. Now, the partition of a number is the number of different ways it can be expressed as the sum of integers (e.g., the partition of 4 is 5: 1+1+1+1, 1+1+2, 1+3, 2+2, 4+0); partitions become very large very quickly (e.g., the partition of 10 is 42; the partition of 20 is 627; read more about partitions here.) So this assignment is no small feat. Freeman makes its successful completion the breathtakingly exciting climax of his play's first act, allowing Ramanujan a suitably theatrical demonstration of his prowess that brings the curtain down triumphantly.
Second, Freeman looks beyond the content of Ramanujan's genius to explore how it affected him as a man and also how it affected others. There are two significant relationships developed in the play. Through another Indian scholar at Cambridge, Ramanujan meets a lively, bohemian young English woman named Esme, who is a painter. Esme eventually falls in love with Ramanujan (and the feeling is reciprocated, though the consequences are complex for Ramanujan is already married to an Indian girl he left behind so he could study here in England). The layers and implications of this romance are examined with sensitivity and in detail.
And then there's the complicated web of feelings between Ramanujan and his champion/mentor, Hardy. Freeman presents the latter as a typically stiff-upper-lip, repressed Englishman: it's clear that Hardy's one passion is for mathematics (though he professes an affinity for cricket as well). Hardy resists participating in World War I, which breaks out right about the time that Ramanujan arrives at Cambridge, because he doesn't want to sully his research in pure mathematics with any kind of application, military imperative or no. But Hardy's devotion to his calling allows him to look beyond the color of Ramanujan's skin as well as the unconventionality of Ramanujan's approach (the Indian says that formulae are revealed to him by a Hindu goddess, which is anathema to a strict man of science like Hardy). What we come to understand, as the play progresses, is that Hardy has fallen in love with his protégé—romantic love as well as something more spiritual. How Freeman handles this development, which was obviously fairly taboo a century ago, is especially admirable.
So A First Class Man offers a rare, incisive, thoughtful, and ultimately kind-of heartbreaking account of Ramanujan's too-brief life. It's so vivid that it made me want to learn more about this remarkable man. But it's an eminently satisfying and edifying drama, all on its own.
Director Fahmy has staged it with the grace and elegance of a Merchant-Ivory film; even on a relatively small off-off-Broadway budget, he and his design team have created a lovely, involving, briskly paced, and entirely professional work of theatre. Particularly noteworthy are Jeffery Eisenmann's spare, invaluable sets, which use a single bench and a couple of portable blackboards to thrilling effect, and Chloe Chapin's wonderful costumes (I love that Ramanujan is either barefoot or in slippers throughout—he never assimilates fully enough to wear traditional English boots). There's also a truly skillful portrait that's used here as the one Esme paints of Ramanujan; it's uncredited, but it's superb.
The actors all turn in expert performances. Bobby Abid, Chriselle Almeida, Davis Hall, Doug Simpson, Radhika Vaz, Timothy Roselle, and Vikram Somaya do fine work in a variety of supporting roles (most are double- or triple-cast). Kelly Eubanks brings great intelligence and fire to Esme. The play's two leading men—Steve French as Hardy and Amir Arison as Ramanujan—are especially impressive, conveying both the intellect and the unspoken/unexamined emotions of these two complicated characters. Both of these young actors are talents to watch, as is director Fahmy.
All that remains for me to say is that A First Class Man is a first-class evening of theatre, and I wholeheartedly recommend it; don't be put off by its subject matter, for even if you hated math in school, there's a rich emotional and psychological journey to be had in this play. Bravo to ALTEREGO for bringing this work to the stage, and for proving that without courageous and ambitious indie theatre companies like this one, our theatre would indeed be a poorer, blander place.