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Theater Review

Light, Pleasing 'Proof' Moves Up to Broadway

October 25, 2000|LINDA WINER | NEWSDAY

NEW YORK — "Proof" is a very nice play with a lovely cast, a breakaway performance by Mary-Louise Parker and an inoffensive way of making audiences feel smart. Is this enough to succeed in the commercial theater, where so many more ambitious plays have vanished without a Broadway blip?

We may not be the best judge of that. We admit we were surprised when "Proof," the first major production by a promising newcomer named David Auburn, became a hot ticket at Manhattan Theatre Club last spring. We were at least as surprised to learn that this modest play about a mathematician's family was selected to attempt the leap from off-Broadway.

"Proof" opened Tuesday night at the Walter Kerr Theatre, and we are no closer to understanding the faith in its broad appeal. Daniel Sullivan's fine production has been blown up to fit the larger space without sacrificing its unpretentious sense of proportion, and the bungalow set by John Lee Beatty gets the look of Chicago so right that we almost expect to feel the wind.

Despite comparisons with such major science-driven dramas as Tom Stoppard's "Arcadia" and Michael Frayn's "Copenhagen," however, "Proof" uses higher math as merely a quirky academic background--a pleasantly unfamiliar wallpaper--for a lightweight example of the tragicomedy porch play that used to be a specialty of Lanford Wilson at the late, lamented Circle Repertory Theater.

But Parker is as good as you've probably heard as Catherine, a tough and needy young woman who has given up years to nurse her genius mathematician father through cruel dementia and death. The actress, most recently cherished onstage in "How I Learned to Drive," has an astonishing way of seeming open and shut down at the same time. With a smile that doubles as a grimace, her Catherine achieves an emotional honesty with the ghost of her father--a heartbreaking Larry Bryggman--that transcends easy plot mechanics.

Ben Shenkman has just the right geek-love quality as Hal, the math scholar who comes to study the father's notebooks and ends up learning from the daughter. Johanna Day has managed to find more sympathy for the sister, Auburn's only false note, who comes from New York for the funeral and immediately puts the house up for sale.

Auburn knows the University of Chicago territory well enough to endear himself with references to prime numbers and the elegance of a solution. When someone makes a knowing joke about an imaginary number, however, it is just that--a techie joke between specialists who share an exotic vocabulary but suffer the familiar concerns of romantic seriocomedy. Auburn's lecture about the marginalization of women in higher mathematics has the heavy-handed stamp of a beginner, but he has a lovely way with the unexpected retort and the expected changes of the heart.

This may indeed mean that "Proof" is Broadway material, but you can't prove it here.

*

* "Proof," Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 W. 48th St., New York. Telecharge: (800) 432-7250.

Linda Winer is chief theater critic at Newsday.

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