MTC Diary
Here & There
This & That
Beaux Arts
Home Theatre

Proof, at the Walter Kerr

Quite a few people, it seems, have seen 'Proof' twice, or at least I've run into three or four, and when I was casting about for an interesting show to take my nephew to, it seemed the obvious choice. But I had to act fast, because Jennifer Jason Leigh would be leaving the production at the end of the week, to be replaced by Anne Heche. I've nothing against Ms. Heche, but as a fan of Ms. Leigh's movies, I was curious to see what she did with the leading role. So I called the theatre's ticket service and got two seats smack in the middle of Row K. My apologies to the folks behind us. 

There's only one problem with 'Proof,' and that's the question 'What is it about?' This is very hard to answer in a way that doesn't put prospective theatregoers off. 'Proof' is certainly not about mathematics, any more than 'Copenhagen' is about physics. Suffice it to say that both Mary Louise Parker and Jennifer Jason Leigh have had no trouble convincing sold-out audiences with their impersonations of a twenty-five year-old mathematical genius - and I'm sure that Gwyneth Paltrow is doing the same in London. Maybe the play would not be the hit that it is without those marquee names, but who knows? May someday David Auburn's play will return the favor, and make a star of its Catherine.

All right; here's what 'Proof' is about: believing in people when they're down. Catherine is down, no doubt about it. It's a measure of the kind of comedy that Mr Auburn excels at that her negative response when asked if her friends will be taking her out for her birthday - "Because in order for your friends to take you out you generally have to have friends" - gets a good laugh. Nonetheless it's true that Catherine has no friends. For many years, she has been sharing a house with her deranged father, Robert, a sometime genius on the order of John Nash, and a former faculty member at the University of Chicago. Her mother died some time ago, and her older sister Claire went off to New York. Four years before the opening curtain, Robert enjoyed a nine-month remission of his illness, but Catherine's term at Northwestern was cut short when he sank back into what Catherine calls 'graphomania,' filling notebook after notebook with gibberish. Catherine needs a life. 

Her father's death brings Claire home for the funeral. It also brings one of Robert's former students, Hal Dobbs, to the house. He wants to go over Robert's papers, and won't take Catherine's say-so as to their being worthless. Both Claire and Hal think that Catherine is in pretty bad shape; Hal suggests the university's health service, and Claire wants to take Catherine back to New York. As it happens, however, Catherine's life has not been entirely wrapped up in caregiving. She has found much satisfaction in doing a little math on her own, teaching herself as she goes along. Not surprisingly, neither of her visitors strikes her as a sympathetic judge of her work. They see an awkward, exhausted girl. When she tells them about her work - by the end of the first act, she has warmed to Hal - they don't believe her. 

Would you? Healthy skepticism isn't all that stands between Claire and Catherine. Claire, the less gifted child, is still smart enough to have made a good career for herself as a currency analyst in New York, and she has been paying her father's bills for years. She would have preferred to institutionalize him; she thinks it might have been better for him than the drafty, dingy Hyde Park house on whose back porch the action is set. Catherine, of course, believes that institutionalization would have killed him. Each, in short, bears the other a big grudge. Claire is worldly and capable, but she is also a philistine. I don't mean that she has bad taste in art - that's not what 'philistine' really means anymore. No, Claire is afraid of the unpredictability of great intelligence; she all but suspects that geniuses ought to be under lock and key. She's not motivated by envy - 'Proof' is not a melodrama. Claire is well-meaning, but she has yielded to the somewhat self-serving notion that her brilliant sister could not have put up with taking care of a crazy parent unless she were crazy herself. Claire's cluelessness is signaled by the fact that she and her father have no scenes together.

If the fissures between Claire and Catherine only widen as the play goes on, Hal and Catherine come closer, and here David Auburn's use of flashbacks - three of the play's ten scenes are set four years earlier - works brilliantly to keep the road to true love dramatically bumpy. 'Proof' certainly doesn't have the air of a romantic comedy, but that's what it is at heart. The lovers are well-matched, not unattractive, socially backward math geeks. Hal is a little less backward than Catherine, and I don't think it's wild to see him as a sort of Prince Charming, hacking his way through the briar patch in which Catherine has all but walled herself up. Most girls, though, would probably not be impressed. 

Robert's broken genius is presented from several angles; sometimes we can trust his assurance, and sometimes we can't. Although his part is the smallest, he has the loveliest extended speech, a passage in which Auburn wrings poetry from the vernacular.

I was in a bookstore yesterday. Completely full, students buying books ... browsing ... Students do a hell of a lot of browsing, don't they? Just browsing. You see them shuffling around with their backpacks, goofing off, taking up space. You'd call it loitering except every once in a while they pick up a book and flip the pages: 'browsing.' I admire it. It's an honest way to kill an afternoon. In the back of a used bookstore, or going through a crate of somebody's old record albums - not looking for anything, just looking, what the hell, touching the old book jackets, seeing what somebody threw out, seeing what they underlined ... Maybe you find something great, like an old thriller with a painted cover from the forties, or a textbook one of your professors used when he was a student - his name is written in it very carefully ... Yeah, I like it. I like watching the students. Wondering what they're gonna buy, what they're gonna read. What kind of ideas they'll come up with when they settle down and get to work...

The image of students in a bookstore comes back wrenchingly a few scenes later, but in this moment of peace Robert has caught the pulse of university life, the only life that he has ever known.

It would be interesting to see 'Proof' with one of Off-Broadway's veterans in the lead. (J. Smith-Cameron comes to mind, presto.) So far, however, 'Proof' appears to be a play for one big star and three solid supporting actors. In the original cast, Johanna Day as Claire, Barry Shenkman as Hal, and Larry Bryggman as Robert supported Mary Louise Parker. Their roles have been taken over by Seana Kofoed, Josh Hamilton and Patrick Tovatt. Kathleen and I saw the original cast months after the show moved from the Manhattan Theatre Club (where we didn't see it, owing to illness) to the Walter Kerr Theatre on 48th Street. I bought a copy of the text soon afterward, but didn't read it until just the other day, prior to seeing the show a second time, and quite aside from showing how well put-together 'Proof' is, the reading revived my recollection of how the first cast read its lines, so to speak. I not only heard Mary Louise Parker's somewhat delayed, or held-back responses but saw the pop-eyed stare that was usually her real answer. I remembered Ben Shenkman's nervous shiftiness and, even more powerfully - because I'd almost hated her character - Johanna Day's pious dishonesty. I couldn't quite capture Larry Bryggman because David Morse got in the way, who knows why - probably because Morse played a not dissimilar role, in a very similar relationship, in the film of 'Contact.' In short, the reading primed me to notice the new cast's different approach.

Seeing a good play performed by casts that are different but of roughly the same caliber is a treat that New Yorkers can enjoy almost as often as we can be persuaded to spend a small fortune on a second (or third!) set of tickets (when we saw 'M. Butterfly' the second time, we ran into a couple at intermission that had already seen it twice). Sometimes, the difference between two actors is captured in the reading of a single line. At one point in the Second Act of 'Proof,' Claire asks Hal an impertinent question to which his answer, 'That's none of your business,' is certainly the right one. But nothing more starkly highlighted the difference between the Hals of Ben Shenkman and Josh Hamilton than the ways in which this answer came out. Ben Shenkman's Hal replied quickly and decisively, almost as though he'd expected the question, or perhaps because he was in the habit of insisting on his privacy. Josh Hamilton blurted it out in offended surprise, almost as appalled by his own rudeness as by Claire's question. For myself, I preferred Mr Hamilton's Hal; it was the more naive and unthinkingly awkward. Someone else might just as easily prefer Mr. Shenkman's greater intensity. I also preferred Ms Kofoed's Claire, because, as I say, the play is not a melodrama, and Claire should not appear to be too eager to get Catherine to New York. As for the leading ladies, I'm afraid that I would have to vote for Mary Louise Parker, for the simple reason that Jennifer Jason Leigh has apparently not been trained to project her voice in a theatre. Her lines did not reach even so far as Row K with the fullness of her colleagues', and I doubt that anybody in the top balcony could hear her at all. This isn't to say that Jennifer Jason Leigh isn't somehow a real actress. But without her very impressive filmography, it's unlikely that she would have made it past rehearsals.  (June 2002)

Permalink  | Portico

Copyright (c) 2006 Pourover Press

Write to me