KPBS AIRDATE: January 17, 2003
“Good Will Hunting” meets “A Beautiful Mind” in “Arcadia.” Despite the fact that David Auburn’s Broadway debut drama, “Proof,” won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award for Best Play, it feels strikingly familiar. It concerns an unschooled math prodigy who happens to be a brilliant young woman, and a mathematical genius destroyed by mental illness, with an awe-struck mediocre math-man and a jealous sister thrown in. It touches on many significant themes — from the dominance of mathematics by young men, to the link between brilliance and madness, to the bottom-line notion of how crucial truth and proof are in science and how little they pertain or apply in real life.
This sounds like pretty heady stuff… and you’re probably worried about all the math. But besides some mention of prime numbers, there isn’t much you have to calculate. “Proof” is a bit of a mystery wrapped in a relationship play. First and foremost is a father-daughter interaction — Robert changed the course of his profession by the time he was 22, and went steadily downhill toward insanity. Catherine, now 25, who dropped out of school to care for him, wonders if she’s inherited her father’s madness as well as his mathematical prowess. Claire, a vapid yuppie, is envious of her sister’s brains and her parental bond. Then there’s the geeky math-drone Hal, who idolizes Robert and is attracted to Catherine. The surprise comes in the unearthing the solution to a previously insoluble problem, and the suspense revolves around exactly who wrote the proof. After a slow build, that enigma ends the first act. The second act flashes back and forth in time, but doesn’t shed much light on the characters or their situation.
At the beautifully remodeled South Coast Repertory Theatre, the production is pleasantly designed and directed, and the performances are credible, but not stellar. Catherine is a star-turn, a role that’s been tackled by the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow and Anne Heche. Emily Bergl, who was a heart-breaking Juliet at the Globe a few years back, plays down the part, repeatedly striking one depressed, hunch-backed note and minimizing the character’s complexity. She may well plumb Catherine’s depths during the course of the run. Christina Haag has less to work with in Claire, and there’s little nuance in her brittle sister act. Richard Doyle is likable, and best in the father’s descent-into-madness scene. The adorable James Waterston, also seen recently at the Globe, is better looking than most math nerds, but natural and thoroughly believable otherwise. Overall, although there is a pinch of dramatic tension and a dollop of humor, as well as a few fascinating theses posed, there isn’t much depth or complexity to the piece. In the end, the play lacks the subtle intricacy of the proof it’s all about.
©2003 Patté Productions Inc.