For the first eighteen years of his life, monologist Josh Kornbluth suspected he was more or less destined to be a math prodigy. Born with a natural gift for numbers that was stoked by a math-teacher father and a hyper-intellectual, red-diaper New York City social milieu, he grew up getting grilled on his times tables at the kitchen counter and playing math games the way some kids play video games. He was nine years old when his dad first told him he’d become the greatest mathematician who’d ever lived; the prediction quickly ripened into full-on prophecy, and Kornbluth’s fundamental sense of self soon became defined by his capacity with numbers. He attended the prestigious math-and-science magnet Bronx High School of Science — where he was, naturally, a member of the math team — and then went on to Princeton University, planning to major in math. In his freshman year, he loaded up on advanced calculus and physics classes and ignored prerequisites, believing it would all come to him intuitively — because he was, pre-ordinately, a math whiz.
But then, suddenly, he wasn’t. “I hit the wall,” Kornbluth said, plain and simple. In freshman calc — surrounded by a roomful of kids who had all, in turn, been the smartest kids in every room they’d previously occupied — he found himself completely unable to keep up. He was lost.
“I felt like I had no other choice — my only option in life was to be a math genius,” he said. So when that fell apart, “I didn’t know what to do or who I was.” That experience ultimately came to form the foundation for Kornbluth’s monologue, “The Mathematics of Change,” first published as part of his 1996 book Red Diaper Baby. The show, he said, is ostensibly about failing at math, but it’s also “about who we think we are and who we think we are going to be.” In that way, it’s universal. Math makes for a surprisingly pliable metaphor, and he delivers the monologue like a lecture — in front of a blackboard, chalk flying — using the vocabulary of calculus to stand in for all kinds of bigger, broader concepts: integration, limits, variables and constants, curves of all kinds. On Friday and Saturday, April 1-2, Kornbluth — who ultimately switched to political science and is now a successful author and monologist based in San Francisco — will perform the show at the world-renowned Mathematical Sciences Research Institute (17 Gauss Way, Berkeley) in the Berkeley Hills, above the Lawrence Hall of Science. It’s an odd site for a theater performance, but the institute has a long history of programming events that meld the sciences and the arts. Besides, the symbolism here is irresistible: Kornbluth will, after all, be performing his faux-lecture in a room typically occupied by some of the sharpest mathematical minds on the planet — the kind of people Kornbluth always expected to become, and the kind of people he is clearly, and now comfortably, not. Destiny’s got a sense of humor that way. 8 p.m., $25. 510-642-0143 or MSRI.org