nytheatre.com review by Cory Conley
July 7, 2012
David Auburn's Proof has, among other things, one of the neatest titles around. It sounds like an investigative mystery play, and in a sense, it is: the plot centers on the discovery of an important mathematical proof about prime numbers, and also on the mystery of the work's authorship. Did a legendary but mentally ill math professor pump out this last gasp of genius before dying—or was it actually written by his unstable young daughter, who never graduated from college?
You'll know the answer before it's over, but Auburn's play, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2001, has a lot more on its mind. As presented by Sink or Swim Rep at the Connelly Theater, Proof turns out to be an investigation of many things: the elusive gift of creativity, the limits of familial love, and most hauntingly, the potential link between genius and mental impairment.
We start with Catherine, whose father, Robert, has just died after a long mental illness, which seemingly took him away from the work that had made him an iconic mathematics theorist and a respected professor at the University of Chicago. Immediately upon Robert's death, an ambitious graduate student and acolyte named Hal comes along to poke through Robert's notebooks, which number in the hundreds and are mostly made up of nonsense. Hal and Catherine navigate through the beginnings of a relationship (under the watchful glare of Catherine's sister, Claire), until he finds the most precious notebook he could imagine, the one with the proof. And from there, things start to unravel.
As the pulsing nerve center of this story, Catherine needs a fully charged performance from the actress playing her, and she gets one here in the person of Kristin Parker. Whether feuding with her sister, flirting with Hal, calming her father, or throwing a knockdown fit for everyone, Parker ably taps into the cauldron underneath this fragile and explosive woman. At times, Catherine is almost unwatchable in her volatility. But you keep watching, and that's partly due to Parker's fierce and focused work.
The other members of the cast each present a likable persona that sometimes works, and sometimes works against them. Both Eric Smith as Hal, and Whitney Kaufman as Claire, achieve real moments of clarity and catharsis. But at times, they both push too hard at the mannerisms and motivations of their characters, so that a few of the scenes lack the tension of real people in conflict. Alan Langdon, as Catherine's father Robert, effectively captures the verbal quirks of an older man's debilitating illness, though he's sometimes inaudible.
This ensemble, and the staging, both feel like they could benefit from a more grounded and coherent point of view. (The direction is credited to Wendy Merritt.) But the emotional tug of Auburn's script is undeniable, as is the strength of its ideas, and this hardworking company has done a valuable service in bringing it back to the New York stage.