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THEATER REVIEW

Proof Proves Itself

Math + Mental Illness + Four Characters = Afterglow

By Devdoot Majumdar

staff writer

At the Wilbur Theater through Feb. 17

Written by David Auburn

Directed by Daniel Sullivan

With Robert Foxworth, Chelsea Altman, Stephen Kunken, and Tasha Lawrence

When a play leaves you with a euphoria -- an afterglow -- diminished only by the dinginess of the subway ride home, you know you’ve found a winner. Twice now I’ve had the pleasure of submerging myself in the world and characters of David Auburn’s Proof and I would repeat the experience in a heartbeat.

On the heels of its successful reign over Broadway, Auburn’s psychological snapshot of mad mathematical genius has an extended stay at the Wilbur Theatre. On its way to Boston, the play, helmed by a sizzling Mary Louise Parker, laid claim to a Pulitzer and a Tony.

Proof is little more than a character study disguised as a simple story. For the duration of his life, Robert (Robert Foxworth) was a gruff, seemingly stolid, and uncompromisingly cynical mathematician. He also “revolutionized” the field twice before succumbing to mental illness.

Catherine (Chelsea Altman), Robert’s daughter, lives in solitude after her father’s death. Robert is reincarnated as a figment of his daughter’s imagination, their relationship typified more by camaraderie than dictation. As his funeral approaches, the breadth and depth of Catherine’s psyche is examined through her dialogue with her dead father, her sister Claire (Tasha Lawrence), and one of her father’s students, Hal (Stephen Kunken).

The engaging plotline appeals to the champions of soap-opera melodrama. Catherine, the seemingly aimless daughter of the math prodigy, eventually must “prove” her own genius to a sister who thinks she has “tendencies toward instability” and a lover who thinks she might be looking for attention.

Altman does justice to the angst-ridden Catherine. Her disarming acting charms the audience with its unguarded wit and sparks of vulnerability. Her once-promising future in mathematics set back by years spent at home nursing her ill father, Catherine must fight a personal war with her own insecurities, symbolized by the magazines strewn across the patio.

Auburn’s writing provokes a distaste for Catherine’s abruptness and shrewd but unsuccessful attempts at sarcasm. We begin to think either Altman can’t act or the writing is just that trite. Gradually, both cases are proven wrong as Altman garners sympathy for Catherine’s problems and Auburn’s writing overtakes the audience with the afterglow that characterizes the whole play.

Perhaps the grandest of scene stealers, Catherine’s sister Claire presents a metropolitan counterpoint to Catherine’s intellectual bohemian. A currency analyst, she’s the stereotypical New York executive, delivering both comic relief and some much needed maternal blather. Claire is the type to recommend special shampoo that she insists makes her hair healthy -- to which Catherine retorts, “Hair is dead.”

Her dress suits and bagels-and-coffee demeanor add a nagging but essential component to Auburn’s play. Lawrence’s portrayal is astoundingly savory, demanding human sympathy for a character who could easily be dismissed as pure vapidity.

One of Catherine’s father’s grad students, Hal, also plays an intricate role in the story. With academic charm (jokes about i, whining about passing his mathematical prime at 25), he manages to seduce Catherine into a position of trust and vulnerability, exposing her to the audience quite in the raw. As Hal, Kunkren seems to have mastered the abrupt awkwardness that typifies the dysfunctional relationship between Hal and Catherine.

Catherine’s dead father, Robert, appears in a series of flashbacks and imaginary conversations. Foxworth’s gruff sentimentality mimics that of the motorcycle riding, Bible-toting, asymptote-finding math teacher you had in high school, or at least the one I did.

Proof’s script is the centerpiece of the experience. Auburn manages to bring reality to characters who would have otherwise flopped into the stereotypical monoliths with which we commonly associate them. With superb acting and directing, Proof leaves us with a profound experience that resonates for days on end.