The New York Times, May 24, 2000


"Have you noticed how many well-educated characters are holding forth on New York stages?"

by Bruce Weber

The physicists of "Copenhagen," the accomplished playwright of "The Real Thing," the literati of "The Designated Mourner" — all are challenging, and charming, audiences with the force of intellect. Lyman Felt, the self-justifying bigamist of "The Ride Down Mount Morgan," makes his case with the well-reasoned eloquence of a philosopher, and even in a romantic comedy like "Dirty Blonde," the lead male character is a film historian. Forrest Gumpism may still be alive in the land, but one thing this spate of excellent plays reminds us is that learning is desirable, not least because it enriches the emotions. In case you've forgotten, intellectuals are people too.

Happily, this trend is being perpetuated with "Proof," an exhilarating and assured new play by David Auburn that turns the esoteric world of higher mathematics literally into a back porch drama, one that is as accessible and compelling as a detective story. The play, which opened yesterday at the Manhattan Theater Club, is fundamentally a mystery about the authorship of a particularly important proof, a mystery that is solved in the end; it is also, however, about the unravelable enigma of genius, and the toll it can take on those who are beset with it, aspire to it or merely live in its vicinity.

In that service, the play takes great pains to depict the study of mathematics as a painful joy, not as the geek-making obsession of stereotype, but as human labor, both ennobling and humbling, by people who, like musicians or painters (or playwrights), can envision an elusive beauty in the universe and are therefore both enlivened by its pursuit and daunted by the commitment. It does this not by showing them at work but by showing them trying to live and cope when they can't, won't or simply aren't, and in so doing makes the argument that mathematics is a business for the common heart as well as the uncommon brain.

As directed by Daniel Sullivan and performed by an exemplary cast, "Proof" has the pace of a psychological thriller, and if its resolution ("lumpy" rather than elegant, to use a word that one character uses to describe the titular proof) tilts toward the sentimental, the characters deserve to be hopeful. As one woman exiting the theater ahead of me said to her companion, "It's like 'Copenhagen' with a happy ending," an oversimplified review, perhaps, but in spirit, close enough.

At the center of the play is Catherine, a young woman who is about to bury her father, a once-great mathematician at the University of Chicago whose final years were beset by madness. Played with stirring unsettledness by Mary-Louise Parker, Catherine has inherited her father's handwriting, his humor and, to an indeterminate degree, both his genius and illness.

"A taste for the mysteries of numbers is excessively rare," the German mathematician Karl Friedrich Gauss wrote to Sophie Germain, a gifted young French woman, some 200 years ago. Catherine has the letter memorized. Its acknowledgment that such a predilection is particularly rare in women is a source of pride and inspiration to her, but it makes her fearful as well; she has witnessed firsthand the jumble that mathematics can make of a working brain. Having quit her own studies years earlier to care for her father, she is, as we see her first on the eve of the funeral — and her 25th birthday — at the intersection of a haunting past and blank future. Drinking cheap champagne from the bottle on the back porch of the house she now lives in alone — to anyone who knows Chicago, John Lee Beatty's staunch, brick set will locate the play precisely — she is disheveled, bitter, immobilized by depression.

Ms. Parker is immediately vivid as Catherine, a woman whose sense of defeat is both circumstantial and self-imposed, someone who is aware she has both brain power and sex appeal in spades but trusts neither enough to exhibit them.

She is herself only with her father (Larry Bryggman), who appears intermittently in both flashbacks and dreams, dramatically risky scenes that are skillfully integrated into the narrative by Mr. Auburn and performed by Mr. Bryggman and Ms. Parker with the sad — and occasionally droll — resignation of people holding onto a lifeline of mutual understanding.

Eloquently snappish in her self-pity, Catherine is, with everyone else, an intimidating presence, except that her body language, in Ms. Parker's performance, can't help but be a fetching plea for salvation. Her inner conflict determinedly keeps at bay her well-meaning sister, Claire, a nonmathematician (she didn't get the family's more troublesome genes) who, as played with a fine blend of anger and concern by Johanna Day, is understandably exasperated by her sister's obstinate antics and wants to sell the house and bring Catherine back with her to New York where she won't be alone with her demons.

Fortunately for Catherine, she is being courted, shyly but insistently, by Hal Dobbs (Ben Shenkman), a former student of her father's who has been going through the great man's notebooks hoping to find unpublished revelations that may be masked by deranged scribbling. Perhaps conditioned by his chosen profession, Hal doesn't accede to rejection readily, or maybe he doesn't recognize it; he is moved by Catherine as much as he was by her father. In a role written both to acknowledge and debunk the stereotype of the socially inept math nerd, Mr. Shenkman wonderfully evokes the hesitant charm of a young man whose self-awareness tells him that he is more than brainy but less than suave.

Do Catherine and Hal belong together? That, pardon the expression, is a complex equation for any two people to solve. As their mutual affection and trust waxes and wanes over the course of an autumn weekend, the issue of genius — who has it and what does it portend? — turns out to be the elusive variable.

But ultimately this is emotional math, the sort that everyone and no one understands. Without any baffling erudition — if you know what a prime number is, there won't be a single line of dialogue you find perplexing — the play presents mathematicians as both blessed and bedeviled by the gift for abstraction that ties them achingly to one another and separates them, also achingly, from concrete-minded folks like you and me. And perhaps most satisfying of all, it does so without a moment of meanness. "Proof" reaches into remote cerebral terrain and finds — guess what? — good people. Intelligence a virtue? Q.E.D.

Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company


The Daily News, May 24, 2000

"Q.E.D.: 'Proof' Is Brilliant
Parker's equal to the challenge in play about a math genius"

by David Kaufman

 

PROOF. By David Auburn. With Larry Bryggman, Johanna Day, Mary-Louise Parker and Ben Shenkman. Directed by Daniel Sullivan. Sets by John Lee Beatty. Costumes by Jess Goldstein. Lighting by Pat Collins. At the Manhattan Theater Club, 131 W. 55th St., (212) 581-1212. Tickets, $20-$50.

The Manhattan Theater Club is ending one of its finest seasons with an exciting new drama, "Proof." This play by David Auburn combines elements of mystery and surprise with old-fashioned storytelling to provide a compelling evening of theater.

From its astonishing opening scene to its shocking Act I curtain line, the moral of "Proof" is that things often are not what they appear to be. This may be an ancient adage, but it acquires fresh vitality as Auburn's dialogue keeps spinning off in unexpected directions.

Set on the back porch of a rambling old house in Chicago, the drama centers around Catherine, an odd loner whose father, Robert, has just died. One of the world's great mathematicians, Robert lost his sanity some time back, and Catherine dropped out of college to care for him. This was especially tragic, because Catherine apparently has her father's genius for numbers.

Apart from some flashbacks that depict how eccentric Robert could be, the play takes place in the present, when Catherine is celebrating her 25th birthday. Her despised sister Claire flies in from New York for their father's funeral. Hal, a graduate student of Robert's from his one "lucid year," is also on hand, going through his mentor's many notebooks to see if there's anything to be discovered.

Such is the setup for this smart and compassionate play of ideas, which never loses sight of its characters' emotional lives. While we have to be grateful to the MTC for bringing this young playwright to our attention, they have also launched a flawless production of this, Auburn's first major play.

Director Daniel Sullivan gets superlative results from his cast of four. The always-reliable Mary-Louise Parker gives a deeply moving performance in the difficult part of Catherine. She is especially deft at making us sense Catherine's fear that she inherited more than just her father's keen mind, and that she too will eventually end up in "the bughouse."

Ben Shenkman is appropriately nerdy as Hal, a young professor and "math geek" who's also a drummer in a local band. Larry Bryggman is wonderfully childlike and loony as the crazy father. And in the least sympathetic role, Johanna Day keeps us guessing whether Claire is genuinely concerned about her sister, or has some ulterior motive for wanting to move her to New York.

It's all played out on John Lee Beatty's marvelously detailed, realistic set, which gives a powerful sense of the autumn season in which the play is set.

Copyright 2000 The Daily News