(David Auburn/Daniel Sullivan)
Proof is not a great play, but it is an able piece of work. Under Daniel Sullivan's impeccable (Tony-winning) direction, David Auburn's witty time-warp of a play (Pulitzer and Tony winner) captivates and sometimes dazzles--if you can picture three mathematicians and a currency analyst (whatever that is) getting yuks all evening in and around the funeral of the father of two of them. I would not have believed it, but I succumbed. Mix in some mental instability and Mr. Auburn's comedy-sketch honed way with our language and you have the makings of an entertaining evening.
Unfortunately, the play also seems to be a cheerleading exercise for gender equality. My remark is not meant as sour grapes, but simply as an observation. While not a popular point of view for a critic these days, it is obviously a popular theme. As such, it may be a necessary... (is 'evil' too strong a word?) considering the sins of the fathers (and sons), but it does undercut somewhat. I suspect this is also a major reason the play was produced--and didn't hurt its prize-winning odds either. Mr. Auburn alludes to the start of this turn (taken at the end of act one) in an interview with the Dramatist's Guild magazine and mentions his intent to "fix it later." But finding it "effective" he held on. Would that he had not.
Mary Louise Parker (Drama Desk and Tony winner), a veteran and accomplished actress for one who looks so damn young and winsome, plays the daughter of a once-great mathematician, now sunken into a schizophrenic malaise. The play tells us this is not unusual among great, creative mathematicians and hints at the possibility of Ms. Parker's character going down the same hereditary road. She embodies this fear of unraveling and is never merely sweet or cute, which adds immensely to the play's success.
Larry Bryggman (Tony nominee), who plays the father, is on the money from the start--when some of us are wondering what this disheveled gent is doing in the same scene with the engaging Ms. Parker. In a beautifully crafted opening scene, we soon learn the answers and are sent down the zig-zag path of this part-mystery, part-emotional anatomy.
The second act is devoted to a ground-breaking eponymous mathematical "proof"--both whodunit and how to convince us of it. Each is accomplished, but at the cost of some damage to the play's claim on longevity. In the cold light of the next morning, some of the play's glitter began to slip away, at least for this reviewer.
The two other actors, Ben Shenkman (Tony nominee) as the father's young protegé and Johanna Day as the heroine's yuppie sister, are also quite good and add nice touches of romance and family conflict, respectively, that round out the play. John Lee Beatty has provided a handsome set that hints of a larger world around it. Pat Collins's lighting is subtle and deft. I was fascinated by the way lights appeared in the surrounding buildings, going off and on at intervals. Jess Goldstein provided the costume design, and since I was unaware of any apparel, this is as it should be in a serious contemporary play.
All in all, it is a worthwhile two hours spent in good hands and as per a conversation I overheard in the lobby before the show,
"It's a won-der-ful play! Won the Pulitzer Prize!"
"Oh, you've seen it?"
Nothing succeeds like success.
(Proof, a transfer from The Manhattan Theatre Club, continues its run at the Walter Kerr Theatre on W. 48th St. until October 14. Call Telecharge for ticket information (212)239-6200.)