Math About You

As the person who caused the only professional New York production of a play by Scribe in the 20th century, I'm entitled to speak: The well-made play is not the enemy. To say it is—and I have many Downtown colleagues, including some at this paper, who do say so—is like saying that, since we now have laser surgery, the scalpel is the chief cause of operating-room malpractice. Sure—if your surgeon doesn't know what he's doing. But when he takes out the working kidney instead of the diseased one, or carves his initials on the uterine wall, it makes sense to sue the doctor, not the scalpel. Now if only our university-trained theatricians, with their jargon and their theories, could be that sensible, and worry about what might cure our theatrical ills, instead of whether the instruments employed were the latest models, New York might show some signs of aesthetic health for a change.

These ruminations were prompted by the two items under discussion this week, which are both perfectly traditional, and a little imperfect in other respects. The one that follows the traditional rules more strictly happens to be a good deal more satisfactory, but that is pure happenstance, from which I have no intention of deriving any general principle. Some surgeons just carve more elegantly, and Proof, appropriately, is proof of that fact.

I suppose I've picked the wrong metaphor, since mathematics, not medicine, is debutant playwright David Auburn's ostensible subject. At the University of Chicago, a great mathematician, who in his youth altered the field with not one but three mind-shattering innovations, has gone mad. In his graphomania, he's filled countless notebooks with incoherent scribblings. One notebook, however, contains a fourth world-shaking proof. Did it come from him, or from his younger daughter, whose higher math is strictly self-taught—she dropped out of college to nurse him—but who now claims the new work is all hers? Both her yuppified elder sister—whose money has supported the family during Dad's dementia—and the pet pupil of her father's last lucid year are uncertain whether she's inherited the parental gift for lightning computation, or only the delusional capacity.

Mary Louise Parker and Ben Shenkman in Proof: sum thing in the air
photo: Joan Marcus
Mary Louise Parker and Ben Shenkman in Proof: sum thing in the air

Details

Proof
By David Auburn
Manhattan Theatre Club
131 West 55th Street
212-581-1212

Enter the Guardsman
By Scott Wentworth and Marion Adler
Music by Craig Bohmler
Dimson Theatre
108 East 15th Street
212-239-6200

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Before he delivers proofs that will satisfy us as well as the characters, Auburn has a good many tricks up his sleeve. Though unqualified to judge his mathematical knowledge, I can see that he delights in calculation. Nearly every scene is based on a piece of information cunningly withheld until the last moment; and unlike playwrights who take such strategic games in ponderous earnest, Auburn perceives their essential playfulness, as do his characters, who toy with each other much as he toys with them and with us. It's impossible to resent manipulation that's carried on in such a generous spirit; by its uninsistent acceptance of its own shallowness, it opens out into a vision of reality. One of the few genuinely big feelings you can get from the well-made play is this overarching sense of life as a huge, silly game, in which we're all buffeted about randomly: Those who stumble over destiny's mousetraps instead of its tragic chasms would do better to smile at their fate than lament it.

And for all the sadness that permeates Proof, there are plenty of alleviations. The traumas of parental madness don't erase the memory of happy lucid moments; issues of self-sacrifice and father-daughter conflicts get resolved; and, in keeping with dramatic tradition, the disciple is as interested in the great mathematician's daughter as he is in the scribbled notebooks. Boy meets girl; through not trusting enough, boy loses girl; and—you do the math. Not that any of this has much to do with math—but then, math, as it turns out, is only ostensibly Auburn's subject, and he doesn't even try to make us understand it. You won't catch him laying out anything like the choreographed moves by which the characters of Copenhagen try to demonstrate the uncertainty principle for us. His main point is that mathematics can be something people love, like almost any other earthly phenomenon, which means they eat, sleep, breathe, and communicate through it. Another thing a play this contrived invariably turns out to be is a love story; those expecting a study of how primes and their multipliers affect our lives will have to wait.

While waiting, though, they can contemplate Daniel Sullivan's production, which supplies all sorts of satisfactions that can't be summed up in exact numbers, the least calculable being Mary Louise Parker's performance as the heroine. It's taken me a long time even to estimate the degree of wonderment this astonishing actress provokes. With every role I've seen her in, the performance seems to be a complete outgrowth of her own personality, but she's also totally different from part to part; there's none of the carryover of manner or trait by which you track what an actor is doing. The distraught, waiflike figure she embodies here, with her pallid face and half-defeated gestures, isn't even a distant cousin to the tormented, grittily determined heroine of How I Learned to Drive. Parker is clearly either a case of multiple personality or a really first-rate artist; I favor the latter theory.

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