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.