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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
---Our Original Review
There are so many reasons why you should see Proof, which tops off one of Manhattan Theatre Club best seasons, that I feel like a nominee at one of the season's awards ceremonies trying to sandwich all who deserve credit into a brief acceptance speech.
For starters, rest assured that while Proof takes its name from a mathematical procedure, this is not a play limited to those with a mathematical bent. You don't even have to know what a prime number is to understand every word of the smart, fast-paced dialogue or to relate to the wonderfully drawn characters, three of whom are indeed mathematicians.
As Michael Frayn's Copenhagen (linked below ) is more about the relationship between two physicists than the fine points of the Uncertainty Principle, David Auburn's play is essentially a family drama. The discovery of a groundbreaking mathematical formula serves as a trigger to set off a psychological mystery surrounding its authorship. Unlike Frayn who introduces much scientific talk into his dialogue, Auburn seems to lean over backward to avoid technotalk in order to keep the play's human issues in the forefront.
The use of the adjective "elegant" by mathematicians for a brilliantly conceived theory applies to the play's construction: the incisive dialogue, the gasp-inducing announcement just before the intermission, the smoothly dramatic integration of several flashbacks.
Elegance -- and eloquence -- also describe the production as a whole. The four-member cast is dazzling with the ethereally lovely Mary-Louise Parker nothing short of thrilling as the central character. As in her unforgettable L'il Bit in Paula Vogel's How I Learned to Drive (linked below), she is fragile and tough as Catherine the daughter who has put her education (and life) on hold to take care of her father (played with a marvelous blend of humor and pathos by Larry Bryggman). She is heir to his genius, albeit along with a tendency towards his crippling manic depression. It is this sharp-tongued, sloppily clothed butterfly's metamorphoses from her cocoon of insecurity that is Proof's real theme.
Ben Shenkman, whose devastatingly on-target portrayal of an opportunistic photographer was one of the high points of Baby Anger (linked below), is topnotch as Hal, a university post graduate mathematician who has come to retrieve possible gold from the 103 notebooks in which, according to Catherine, his erstwhile professor had compulsively written "like a monkey at a typewriter". Hal, insisting that "a mind like that doesn't just shut down", is a perfect mix of nerdy shyness, aggressiveness and likeability, convincingly arousing Catherine from her emotional lethargy -- though nearly disastrously so. Johanna Day, L'il Bit's aunt in How I Learned to Drive, is fine as Catherine's older sister Claire. At first a typical career woman and as emotionally sturdy as Catherine is frail, her relationship with her sister turns out to be quite different than our first view of her implies.
As elegant as the script and performances is Daniel Sullivan's direction which prevents the second act's tendency towards the pat and overly emotional from getting out of hand. Elegant too is John Lee Beatty's set, a fabulous re-creation of a typically South Chicago brick house that wraps the entire stage. From the dark red brick, to the green wood window and door frames, to the glimpses of the hallway and kitchen, every detail smacks of authenticity. It's all beautifully augmented by Pat Collins' subtle lighting.
Is this the great new play by an American playwright we've all been waiting for? Probably not. But like Dinner With Friends (also directed by Sullivan) and Dirty Blonde, it is greatly entertaining and refreshingly intelligent theatrical fare -- proof, if I may invoke the title under discussion, that rumors of the death of good theater are decidedly premature and unfounded.
Skyscraper also by David Auburn
How I Learned to Drive
Dinner With Friends
Other recently reviewed play in which math and science was importantly featured:
The Five Hysterical Girls Theorem
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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