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

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:56

    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.

    Fortunately, 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 proof.

    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 Tobacco By Anton Chekhov

    A Phoenix Too Frequent By 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.

    Fry's 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 unearthed.

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