Late in Act 1, a young mathematician named Hal enters the rundown Chicago backyard that is the naturalistic yet ethereal world of Proof. Hal is breathless with excitement, for he has discovered a document that is fraught with brilliant originality. Surely, in one of those magical interludes where life imitates art, that same breathtaking excitement occurred two years ago at the Manhattan Theatre Club when the first play reader "discovered" David Auburn's Proof.
Proof is an absorbing, deftly crafted combination of family drama and whodunit. Traditional in form yet original in content, its cunning progression of surprising theatrical landmines builds to a first-act curtain line that elicits gasps from the audience. Act 2 builds from that emotional high as it stretches the sheer elasticity of the play's title. No surprise, then, that the Manhattan Theatre Club promptly put Proof into production and then moved it to Broadway, where last season it won the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award.
Chances are, the less you know about Proof the more you'll enjoy it. The plot concerns a series of crises experienced by Catherine (Susan Pourfar), the moody, mercurial 25-year-old daughter of a brilliant mathematician (William Bogert) at the University of Chicago. Some of Catherine's crises are self-inflicted. Others are imposed by her fussy older sister, Claire (Rhoda Griffis), and by Hal (Brik Berkes), one of their father's ambitious former students.
Although Auburn studs his play with enough argot to persuade us that he understands the elegant, rarefied world of prime numbers and elliptical curves, Proof is not about math or mathematicians. This completely accessible tale might just as effectively be about the daughter of a great novelist or astronomer -- anyone who has lived a life of daring exploration. Nevertheless, because the play is set in a world of numbers, it's worth noting that one essential difference between science and art is that in art there are no absolutes. In math, 2 + 2 will always add up to 4. In the theater, 2 + 2 might add up to an exhilarating 5 -- or, as in this production, only an earthbound 3.
It's disappointing to have to report that the much-anticipated St. Louis premiere of Proof is -- as a mathematical proof in the play is described -- decidedly "lumpy." The evening is rife with dissonant elements -- oppressive original music, gimmicky lighting effects -- that make one question whether everyone on this production team was trying to tell the same story.
But I suspect that the fatal reason for the audience disconnect (which on opening night was palpable by the end of Act 2) lies with the performances. Catherine is a role of infinite fascination. But beneath all her colors, any portrayal of Catherine must be invested with the profound fear of madness; what we get from Pourfar is the petulance of someone having a bad-hair day. If Pourfar is to claim this role, she must dig more deeply into herself and find a braver performance.
It should be noted, however, that the lead actress receives little support from the men onstage. As Hal, the only nonmember of this dysfunctional family, Berkes must provide the audience with an anchor of sanity. Alas, he seems content to be simply a nerd. On that shallow level, his performance elicits laughs, but it is insufficient. Indeed, the only member of the cast who faithfully serves the play's intent is Griffis as Catherine's buttoned-up sister. She understands both her character and her function. She keeps the action moving. Whenever Griffis is onstage, you know something interesting is going to happen.
Add it all up, and the final equation comes to this: Proof may very well be a great new American play, but you couldn't prove it by this production.