David Auburn's "Proof" lives up to its name. It proves that it's still possible for an intelligent new play by a young American dramatist to make it onto Broadway. The key factors in the equation are adventurous producers, a fine director and some great acting. The bottom line - if there's any justice - should be a hit. "Proof" is not a masterpiece, and Auburn is not - or at least, not yet - a new Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams. But in a sense, that's precisely what's exciting about it. The lifeblood of the theater is not great works of genius, but well-told, intriguing stories about recognizable people. "Proof" is just such a story. The setting is downbeat: the back porch of an old house in Chicago. The situation is almost cliched: two estranged sisters brought together by the death of their father. What lifts the play out of the ordinary is that the dead father (played with haunting dignity by Larry Bryggman) is a mathematical genius whose early brilliance was blighted by dementia. While his older daughter Claire (Johanna Day) made a career on Wall Street, her sister Catherine (Mary-Louise Parker) was left to care for the deluded, obsessive old man. Typically in such plays, there's a fight over the inheritance and "Proof" adheres to the formula - except that what the dead man has left behind is all in the mind. The unknown combination of genius and madness that has been left to Catherine is the problem to be solved by the play. Did she, as she claims, write the brilliant mathematical proof that's found in one of her father's notebooks, or is she too losing her grip on reality? This works, at one level, as both a gripping mystery story and a sharp comedy of ideas. Through Auburn's subtle construction and Parker's extraordinary performance, it also becomes a moving reflection on the love between parent and child. Auburn imagines Catherine as a kind of modern-day American Hamlet. She, too, is haunted by the ghost of her father, who appears in three scenes that slip gracefully out of the general realism of the piece. Like Hamlet, she is sullen, unstable and volatile, a character in search of a fixed personality. Even as her father's former student Hal (Ben Shenkman) tries to connect with her, she slips beyond his grasp. What Parker has to do, then, is not to show us the truth of Catherine's character, but to withhold it. Instead of filling in the gaps as actors usually do, she has to illuminate their mystery. This she does with an electrifying performance that moves with apparent ease from cold, bitter wit to painful fragility and from apparent apathy to fierce passion. With such a powerfully uneasy performance at its core, "Proof" demands an especially assured production from director Daniel Sullivan. With Bryggman, Shenkman and Day giving precise and well-grounded accounts of their characters, he controls the play's many moods with an understated but impressive elegance. Which is not to say that "Proof" fully delivers on all its promises. The conflict between the sisters would be much richer if Claire were less of a caricature. And the final resolution would be more convincing if the relationship between Catherine and Hal were given a little more time and detail. But it's still a joy to find yourself, at the end of a new play on Broadway, wishing that it had been a bit longer. And "Proof" still adds up to a rich and compelling drama, full of life, laughter, sorrow and hope.
If the proof of a play is in its playing, then David Auburn's "Proof," which last night opened at the Walter Kerr Theater, is a huge winner.
For it plays like a Stradivarius, and its quartet of actors respond to its challenges as virtuosi, particularly a luminous Mary-Louise Parker, who finds a career-defining role as the vibrant daughter of a dead math genius.
Auburn's play is not actually about mathematics - it hasn't got the scientific backdrop that characterizes and informs Michael Frayn's "Copenhagen" or Tom Stoppard's "Hapgood" - but rather about mathematicians and, I suppose, families.
The mathematics we accept as a given. Auburn tells us nothing about them, except that Robert, the dead father (a disheveled, ornery and totally convincing Larry Bryggman), has made an extraordinary contribution to 20th-century mathematics, before declining into mild dementia before an early death.
He's been cared for through the bad times by Catherine, his youngest daughter (Parker), who has sacrificed much of her own education to do so. She's a chip off the old computer.
After the old man's death, a sparky young mathematician named Hal (Ben Shankman, endearing as both academic nerd and suitor) comes to look through Robert's notebooks for anything of research value.
Another far more pushy arrival is Catherine's older sister Claire (a sveltely bossy Johanna Day) who has come for the funeral. She's already made arrangements to sell the house and presses Catherine to go live with her and her fiance in New York.
The play is beautifully and closely plotted. OK, the story itself is not much more than a highbrow soap opera with painless references to mathematics.
Yet Auburn, in his first Broadway outing, provides characters behaving credibly andnatural dialogue without a single stagy phrase stumbling the flow and also ensures the tension is handsomely sustained.
You see, although most of the notebooks contained gibberish, one, carefully kept under lock and key, has a mathematical proof that had eluded mathematicians for centuries.
Who wrote it? Robert, who despite some lucid yet unproductive periods, was thought to be pretty much gaga toward the end, or could it have been Catherine?
The play was first produced last season off-Broadway by the Manhattan Theater Club with the same cast in more or less an identical production. But the Broadway expansion becomes it, and I enjoyed it even more here.
The director, Daniel Sullivan, helped by Pat Collins' lighting, seems to have got the play's various planes in better order.
And the acting seems to have matured with time. All four actors are pitch-perfect, but the one you'll remember is Parker.
Her gusty shifts between vivacity and careless passivity and her overall sense of sheer, focused energy is magnificent. She will surely not be forgotten come Tony time.
Have you noticed how many well-educated characters are holding forth on New York stages?
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.
The powers behind David Auburn's "Proof" have managed to improve upon this remarkable play in its transfer to Broadway from the Manhattan Theater Club, where it enjoyed a successful world premiere last spring. October is the perfect month to experience the play's rich, aching melancholia. An autumnal mood now permeates everything on both sides of the curtain.
The 25-year-old Catherine (Mary-Louise Parker) has put her college education on hold to care for a dying father, Robert (Larry Bryggman), an acknowledged genius and pioneer in the field that she herself may one day dominate. Fortunately, their 12-cubed-plus-1-cubed talk is a mere leitmotif that surfaces only occasionally. When Catherine and Robert speak of their respective mathematical proofs as "beautiful and elegant" or "lumpy and stitched-together," it is possible to fantasize that Auburn's characters are really talking about something else. For these two, math is poetry, and they're bereft without it.
Robert lost his genius long before madness led to this death. "He believed aliens were sending him messages through the Dewey Decimal numbers on the library books," says Catherine, who now finds herself almost crushed by her own swiftly descending curtain of doom. There to watch over her is her stock-analyst sister, Claire (Johanna Day), who offers an apartment in New York as well as an all-expenses-paid trip to the "bughouse" if she should need it.
Before "Proof" begins to sound like "Wit" or yet another disease-of-the-week drama, it should be noted that Auburn's play is wonderfully funny, not to mention a far more ambitiously constructed work than the Margaret Edson play.
The mercurial nature of the mathematician's art is refracted everywhere, usually in ways that offer a humorous counterpoint to somber loss. When the numbers-obsessed Robert forgets a date that happens to be his daughter's birthday, Auburn follows it with their loopy, delightful plans for a cheap night out on the town.
Salvation arrives amid despair. Catherine's attentive boyfriend Hal (Ben Shenkman), who has lusted for Catherine from afar, unexpectedly kisses her in the same breath as he makes an apology, prompting a tender reminiscence of lost opportunities and a very rapid ascent to the bedroom to make sure they don't lose anymore.
Just as it did at MTC, Auburn's act one curtain-dropper produced a chorus of gasps on Broadway. Auburn knows full well that the theater is all about revelations, both sprung and tantalizingly withheld. Scenes of Catherine's immediate past with her father aren't revealed until the play's second half, where the shifting of past and present is never gimmicky, always illuminating.
Daniel Sullivan's direction is back on the level he established a year ago with "Dinner With Friends." There's none of the caricature that marred some of the supporting players in his production of Rebecca Gilman's "Spinning Into Butter" at Lincoln Center Theater. Of course, Auburn doesn't draw caricatures, which helps, even though the sister, Claire, comes perilously close to stereotype at times. Day could possibly have softened her portrayal a shade from the MTC stint. Her Wall Street address used to get a laugh; it didn't this time around, thankfully. The question her character raises remains: Is Catherine so emotionally unbalanced she needs professional help, or does Claire just want to get Catherine out of their father's house so that it can be sold? Day's performance keeps us guessing.
So, too, does Shenkman's Hal. Is he opportunist or lover? No wonder Catherine is bewildered.
When Bryggman's Robert is introduced as a ghost of incredible charm in the play's first scene, it is with deepest regret that we lose him until he silently punctuates the stunner at the end of the first act. One of the immediate pleasures of act two is his taking center stage in a series of flashbacks in which he runs the gamut from patrician math instructor (when Hal is present) to a puddle of failed ambitions (when he collapses in his daughter's arms). Parker's Catherine doesn't relish this new role of caregiver, and so her scenes with a more robust and commanding Robert are poignant.
Together, Bryggman and Parker hit enough emotional highs to sustain a dozen lesser plays. Parker's voice is soprano, but her bass-clef persona lives at least two octaves lower. This actress's signature hangdog quality can sometimes curdle in comedy, but that innate sourness gives sharp focus to her portrayal here.
On second viewing, her performance raises the question of how other actresses might handle a role that is complex enough to sustain a few different interpretations. Sullivan and Parker's approach is for us to see the events through Catherine's eyes. Might it be possible to imagine a more emotionally mercurial Catherine who keeps us guessing? Parker's hair is a disheveled mess, but so might her mind be. In act one, everybody onstage, including her ghost of a father and two offstage cops, seems to think she's losing it big time. With other actresses in other productions, the audience might just choose to occasionally agree with them.
John Lee Beatty's back-porch set indicates Robert and Catherine's living space through windows and screen doors. There are telling autumnal touches: a few crumpled leaves on the porch, small naked trees off to the side. Pat Collins' lighting is especially effective in the play's one winter scene, the golden tones switched to a more unforgiving blue. To fit the Walter Kerr stage, the porch appears to have been elongated, and while the neighbors' houses on either side are still indicated as they were at MTC, they no longer cause the porch to float apart from the rest of the world, a sanctuary as well as a prison for Catherine. But then, magical first impressions aren't always to be trusted.