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Theater Review

More Than Just a Numbers Game

Like 'A Beautiful Mind,' 'Proof' explores mathematics, mental illness and family dysfunction. But it works best as a detective story.

June 07, 2002|SEAN MITCHELL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

David Auburn's much-honored play "Proof" puts a contemporary spin on the cautionary adage "A mind is a terrible thing to waste."

In Auburn's Tony- and Pulitzer-winning drama of last year, which arrived at the Wilshire Theatre on Tuesday night for a two-week road show engagement, the mind of a young mathematician has gone not uncultivated but unrecognized. Very much to the point, the young mathematician, the precocious daughter of a famous University of Chicago math professor, has lived in self-imposed anonymity to the age of 25, discouraged by the gender bias in a field in which most of the heavy thinking, we learn, has been done by men in their 20s. Men like her father, who, by the way, following his breakthrough theorem, lost his mind. Ah, there's the rub.

"Proof" is a four-character detective story with a feminist slant set in a world made up in equal parts of dysfunctional family, mathematics and mental illness. Auburn has a sharp sense of humor that manages to divert us regularly from the grim backdrop to such a tale and that supports the play's final lunge at hope. But the mood is set by the depressive and nearly catatonic Catherine, played here by Chelsea Altman under the direction of Daniel Sullivan, who cast Mary Louise Parker and later Jennifer Jason Leigh in the role in New York.

Catherine is a big role and a tough one, requiring an actress to make herself understood while often mumbling dismissively, not to mention winning our sympathy from a long-standing slouch position that represents her sulking withdrawal from life. Altman is somewhat successful at this without ever overcoming the role's built-in obstacles. (The same was true for Leigh, whom I saw play the role in New York.)

Robert Foxworth, the accomplished stage actor best known, unfortunately, for his stint on "Falcon Crest," is terrific as Robert, the benighted genius father. Showing here what he is capable of in more challenging material (albeit in limited stage time), Foxworth makes all too real the scary instability of his character, downshifting in the same scene from the hum of paternal warmth to the stammering lower gears of madness without losing his grip on the guy for a second. With bearded professorial gentility, he convinces us how much he loves Catherine, yet we accept the truth of her claim that he constructed elegant proofs based on aliens sending him coded messages from outer space. In a flashback a period of recovery, he reaches a level of ebullience that is heartbreaking in its misrepresentation of what's really going on inside his head.

In the year of the Oscar-winning "A Beautiful Mind," here is yet another view of high-level mathematics cracking someone's head. But in this case, the victim not only doesn't recover, but sets a terrifying example for his daughter, who's understandably afraid of her own budding intellect.

"Proof" humanizes mathematics even while it raises the troubling specter of what can happen to a brain stretched over 40-page proofs of prime-number theory for days at a time. Despite all the abstruse calculations, the dynamics of the play are purely personal and staged on one of noted designer John Lee Beatty's sumptuous domestic tableaux, this one the back porch of a neglected stately home that looks as if it has not been painted since the first Richard Daley was mayor of Chicago.

We find that Catherine has been the unhappy caretaker of the old homestead, as well as of her father since his bout with insanity. The play opens with the two of them talking earnestly in a scene soon revealed to be taking place only in her mind. It's set on the day of his funeral, which, in a familiar scenario, occasions a reunion of family members and friends, most of whom we never see. We hear the noise drifting out to the porch after hours and learn that mathematicians and physicists are--maybe surprisingly, maybe not--a drunken and drugged bunch. But nice.

We do see Catherine's estranged and meddling sister, Claire (Tasha Lawrence), who is everything Catherine is not--an ambitious New York careerist soon to be married. And we see Hal (Stephen Kunken), a bright doctoral candidate in mathematics who studied under the great man and is now poring over the professor's notebooks for anything important that might yet be unknown to the world.

Hal's eyes are also trained on Catherine, and in the drunken exuberance of the wake, the two fall for each other with untidy consequences.

What is untidy emerges from the play's sudden transformation into a detective story at the end of Act 1, when Hal discovers a magnificent unknown proof in the hidden notebooks.

Did the professor secretly write this after everyone assumed he had lost his marbles? And if not him, then who? Surely not Catherine, who dropped out of Northwestern in her freshman year and who until this point in the play has exhibited all the intellectual spark of a Grateful Dead groupie.

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