Published in Gay and Lesbian Times January 16, 2003
Don’t worry about the math. You may have heard that “Proof” is all about the surprising solution to an incredibly elusive mathematical theorem. Relax. There’s so little about numbers here even math-phobics can breathe a sigh of relief. Of course, Math-ophiles will probably be disappointed. But that’s the way the numbers fall.
Of much greater concern is that David Auburn’s Broadway debut drama, “Proof,” which won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award for Best Play, feels so familiar. With its unschooled math prodigy and brilliant brain’s descent into madness, it’s a lot like “Good Will Hunting” and “A Beautiful Mind.” And the fact that the budding genius is a girl smacks of “Arcadia,” Tom Stoppard’s far more deep, probing, and fascinating play. Admittedly, Auburn did a few additional elements here: a tease of a love-story, a bit of mystery, an awe-struck mathematical wannabe and a jealous, anti-intellectual sister. And it does touch on some significant themes: from the dominance of mathematics by young men (accent on the youth and on the gender), to the link between brilliance and mental illness, to the bottom-line notion of how crucial truth and proof are in science and how little they pertain or apply in real life.
But first and foremost this is a relationship play, beginning with the father-daughter interaction — Robert revolutionized 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 suspense revolves around exactly who wrote the proof for the previously insoluble math problem. After a slow build, that enigma ends the first act. The second act flashes back and forth in time, but doesn’t shed much new light on the characters or their situation.
At the beautifully remodeled South Coast Repertory Theatre, the production is pleasantly designed (by Thomas Buderwitz — a lovely, clapboard house and yard that looks remarkably similar to David Ledsinger’s set for “All My Sons” at the Globe last summer) and competently directed (by visiting artist Michael Bloom). 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. As the run proceeds, she may well plumb Catherine’s depths. Christina Haag has less to work with in Claire, and there’s little nuance in her brittle sister act. Richard Doyle is likable as their father, and best in his descent-into-madness scene. Also seen recently at the Globe (“An Infinite Ache”), the adorable James Waterston (son of Sam), is better looking than most math nerds, but natural and thoroughly believable throughout. Overall, although there is some dramatic tension and a bit of humor, as well as a few fascinating theses posed, there isn’t much density or intricacy to the play or the production. It may be about mathematics, but a calculated look shows that it doesn’t add up to theater that really counts.
“Proof” runs through February 9 at South Coast Repertory Theatre in Costa Mesa; 714-708-5555.
©2003 Patté Productions Inc.