Peter Dickinson’s Long Division is trapped in its head

Pi Theatre is presenting Peter Dickinson's Long Division at the Gateway.

Lauchlin Johnson’s set for Long Division is a beauty.

There should be laws—similar to child labour laws—that prevent the overworking of metaphors.

Playwright Peter Dickinson buries the heart of his play, Long Division, beneath a series of monologues that declare and develop the metaphor of mathematics so academically that almost all of the extended speeches feel more like lectures than stories.

This much is clear early on: the play’s seven characters are all connected to a traumatic event in the past. Although we don’t meet him, they refer to a male high-school student who was both bullied and mathematically gifted. As the characters reveal slivers of their memories, it seems that somebody ended up dead.

In one of the monologues, a lesbian tavern keeper named Jo talks about witnessing some of the bullying in her bar. This monologue is touching, both because we’re getting some sustained storytelling for a change and because Jennifer Lines, one of the most skilled and openhearted actors around, is playing Jo.

Other than that, most of Act 1 is an emotional and narrative desert. Instead of offering compelling plot development or character exploration, Dickinson plays with his metaphor. His mouthpieces line up to talk about the ways in which Venn diagrams, empty sets, and the parallel postulate relate to human interactions. In an annoying development, we also hear about various figures, including Ada Lovelace, who was Lord Byron’s daughter, and Sophie Germaine, who are both largely unsung heroes of mathematical history. Yes, the inclusion of these figures relates to the play’s exploration of outsider status, but Dickinson’s presentation of this material feels more concerned with the illustration of a thesis than the telling of a story.

Largely because the core narrative finally starts to emerge, Act 2 of Long Division is somewhat more successful than Act 1. Linda Quibell brings depth to the cynical and guilt-ridden high-school principal, and Kerry Sandomirsky’s restraint as the bullied boy’s mother is moving. The entire cast is strong.

Under Richard Wolfe’s direction, the production is, for the most part, extremely handsome. Lauchlin Johnston’s set, which is white and seems to be made out of paper, looks like a pile of bubbles with squared-off cells, or a wonky geodesic dome, or a brain with angles. It’s lovely. Aurally, composer Owen Belton, whose work I can’t get enough of, achieves what Lauchlin manages visually: a combination of the organic and mechanical.

Especially at the top of the evening, I enjoyed Leslie Telford’s gestural choreography. The characters struggle to express themselves in a symbolic language of movement. They stumble and nearly fall. There are also clichés, though, including the creation of a sculptural tableau.

I saw Long Division on its first and only preview night. For everybody involved, previews can be nightmares: so much has to come together and rehearsal periods are never long enough. The performers and crew seemed to be well in control in this preview, however.

The problem is with the well-intentioned but self-conscious script.

LONG DIVISION By Peter Dickinson. Directed by Richard Wolfe. A Pi Theatre production in association with the Gateway Theatre in Gateway Theatre’s Studio B on Thursday, November 17. Continues until November 26.

Get tickets at 604-270-1812 or https://www.gatewaytheatre.com/longdivision

About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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