Mary-Louise Parker Shines in David Auburn’s Middling Proof

Written by Jonathan Kalb on . Posted in Posts, Theater.

In the second
act of David Auburn’s Proof is a sweet father-daughter exchange
that turns suddenly, chillingly sour. Robert, a world-class mathematician at
the University of Chicago who has been mentally ill and unable to work, explains
with exuberant lucidity to his brilliant offspring Catherine that he’s
had a major breakthrough; he’s spent the day outlining an ingenious new
project that could occupy them both, and many others, for years. When she opens
his notebook, however, she finds nothing there but the same graphomaniacal nonsense
he’s been scribbling for months.

Perhaps this
revelation puts you in mind, as it did me, of the famous moment in The Shining
where Shelley Duvall discovers that Jack Nicholson (playing her writer-husband)
has been typing the same childish precept on reams of paper for weeks. Or perhaps
your mind runs to the likes of Balzac, and the revelation in his story "The
Unknown Masterpiece" that the secret magnum opus of the great painter Frenhofer
is a seemingly insane mess of lines and smudged paint. Whether Auburn was thinking
of these sources or not, the talent of this new playwright–much celebrated
of late–mainly lies in managing cliffhanger suspense and sensational scene-endings.
Anything you may have heard about Proof being an intellectually rigorous
tale about mathematics is pure bunkum. Three of the four characters happen to
love math, but the play, poignantly directed by Daniel Sullivan, is basically
a mild psychological thriller about loyalty, bereavement and coming of age.

That it sometimes
seems more ambitious is mostly due to Mary-Louise Parker’s extraordinary
performance as Catherine. When the action opens on John Lee Beatty’s uncannily
realistic porch set, Catherine is talking and drinking cheap champagne after
midnight with her father (Larry Bryggman), who spouts genial advice about overcoming
her lassitude (she’s dropped out of college to care for him), but who also
turns out to be dead (the funeral is the next day). It’s an interesting
scene, unfortunately unique in the play, that leaves the audience guessing about
what’s really going on, and about whether Catherine has inherited her father’s
insanity along with his genius, as she fears. All the other scenes with Robert–whom
Bryggman plays consistently too flat and distracted–are simple flashbacks
that offer no further dialogue with the dead and raise no further questions
about illusion, reality and madness. This simplicity leaves Parker compensating
for all the missing complexity, ambivalence and unpredictability.

this happens to be her special talent, as she demonstrated unforgettably in
How I Learned to Drive. She has that rare transformative ability to "color
in" with an unsettling, capacious humanity what writers have left sketchy
or blank. Her Catherine, dressed in carelessly cute clothes, is sneering, sarcastic
and evasively belligerent yet always likable and always pleading with her diffident
postures and sidelong glances for the love and attention that her quick, sassy
mouth says she doesn’t need. I can’t recall seeing another performer
who brings this much variety to playing unresponsiveness. Her manner of deflecting
the conversation and flirtation of Hal (Ben Shenkman), for instance–her
father’s protege who has come to search through his notebooks for buried
gems, and to be near her as well–is similar yet utterly different from
her manner of deflecting the nosy intrusions of her older sister Claire (Johanna
Day). With Hal she is incandescent, reluctantly elfin, constantly uncertain
whether to bother hiding her beauty, and with Claire she is all tangles and
knots of impatience and defensive skittishness, sometimes the instant after
leaving Hal. Oddly enough, she never seems to want to speak much to either.

The plot hinges
on the discovery of a long and "historic" mathematical proof that
Hal finds in Robert’s desk drawer, with Catherine’s help. Catherine
says she wrote it, but neither Hal nor Claire believe her at first, and only
then does she realize (what with her precocious autodidacticism and the similarity
of her handwriting to her father’s) that she has no conclusive proof of
her claim. Another writer–one truly interested in advanced math, for instance,
as Balzac is truly interested in painting in his prescient, proto-modern story,
or as Michael Frayn is truly interested in quantum mechanics in Copenhagen–might
have seen this situation as a golden opportunity to explore uncertainty. Auburn,
however, has no taste for such big game. He prefers the small potatoes of psychobiography
and underwhelming double entendre (the play’s title); that’s why he
simply erases the mystery soon after posing it and just tells us who wrote the

Shenkman is
strong and convincing in the earnest, benevolently nudgy role of Hal, and Day
is as solid as can be expected in her portrait of straitlaced Claire, given
the plausibility problems with her role. She has come to Chicago for Robert’s
funeral and wants to take Catherine, whom she considers unstable, back to New
York with her. Fair enough. The disconnectedly domineering manner with which
she asserts control is extremely hard to swallow, though, especially since Parker’s
Catherine always appears fully rational. Claire sells the family home where
Catherine still lives without consulting her, for instance, and at one point
tells her she has to have milk in her coffee. There are other bumps and contrivances–the
fact that Robert’s funeral happens to fall on Catherine’s birthday,
for instance–but somehow the depth and nuance of Parker’s performance
make them seem unimportant. Her strange, disquieting presence is, in the end,
what one remembers.

Manhattan Theatre
Club, 131 W. 55th St. (betw. 6th & 7th Aves.), 581-1212.


The Harmfulness Of
Anton Chekhov

A Phoenix
Too Frequent
Christopher Fry

The mission
of the National Asian American Theater Company (to quote its latest press release)
is "to provide opportunities for Asian American artists to perform western
classics and to do so without any Asian cultural references forced on the text."
The company has had several triumphs in recent years, including its versions
of William Finn’s Falsettoland and Brecht’s He Who Says
Yes/He Who Says No
. Its current program of two one-acts directed by Stephen
Stout reprises a work done 10 years ago in the company’s first season,
Chekhov’s famous solo short The Harmfulness of Tobacco, and adds
a rarely performed satirical verse drama from 1946 by Christopher Fry, A
Phoenix Too Frequent

The Chekhov
piece, unfortunately, doesn’t work. The actor, James Saito–whose impressive
bio suggests he ought to be the star of the evening–simply doesn’t
have the chops to pull off this monologue’s tricky combination of bogus
grandiloquence and impromptu confession. The Fry play, however, is a delightful
discovery. A Phoenix Too Frequent is based on a story by Petronius that
was retold by Jeremy Taylor in the 17th century and by Fellini in Satyricon
("The Widow of Ephesus"). A beautiful Roman woman named Dynamene,
accompanied by her loyal and sardonic servant Doto, resolves to starve herself
and follow her deceased husband, Virilius, into the next world. It’s comically
clear from her ostentatious mourning in his tomb, however, just how much earthly
hungers still impinge on her. ("He was the ship. He had such a deck, Doto,/Such
a white, scrubbed deck. Such a stern prow,/Such a proud stern, so slim from
port to starboard./If ever you meet a man with such fine masts/Give your life
to him, Doto.") A handsome soldier named Tegeus, who has been standing
guard outside over seven hanged criminals, wanders into the tomb and soon falls
into flights of florid, pretentious rhetoric with Dynamene, who reconsiders
her decision to die. Just then, however, Tegeus discovers that one of his dead
bodies has been stolen, marking him for certain execution. Dynamene saves them
both with the brain wave of substituting Virilius for the stolen body.

play has twice the theatrical kick of T.S. Eliot’s The Family Reunion
(the modern verse drama that has made the most noise around town lately, at
BAM), and although Stout’s direction is a bit stiff, the actors nevertheless
manage to nail home a surprising amount of the humor. Michi Barall is wisely
and effectively deadpan as Dynamene; Mia Katigbak refreshingly down-to-earth
as Doto; and Joel Carino flush with fine, spurious earnestness as Tegeus. All
three could certainly do better with better guidance. The production isn’t
clever, or slick, or even particularly inspired, but it breathes enough life
into this forgotten bit of resonant verbal hijinks to make one grateful it was

Mint Theater,
311 W. 43rd St. (betw. 8th & 9th Aves.), 718-623-1672, through June 17.