Math About You

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

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.

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.

In part, she can risk going out on any emotional limb because she gets such strong support: The unbalanced father is one of Larry Bryggman's best performances yet, shifting focus with heart-stopping speed, giving the man a center even at his most dislocated. Johanna Day's work as the older sister is a gracefully executed rescue operation, softening with tact and warmth the one area of the script where Auburn tends to overstate his case. Ben Shenkman's performance as the student disciple, contrariwise, almost is a mathematical act—precise in behavior, in feeling, in gesture, and even in its slightly muffled hints of erotic interest. (The tension between him and Parker has an almost 18th-century seductive grace.) The most emotional presence of all, for a child of Chicago like myself, belongs to John Lee Beatty's set, which, even though I grew up on the North Side, I feel sure I could locate within a five-block radius in Hyde Park.

I haven't the foggiest idea, though, in what city or even in what decade you'd locate Enter the Guardsman. The plot turns and the theatrical trappings—borrowed from Ferenc Molnar's brilliant 1911 comedy, The Guardsman—seem to indicate Mittel Europa, circa 1910. The music, heavy on patter numbers, most often suggests British comic opera in the 1890s, post-G&S. Unfortunately, its appalling amplification —which shouldn't be allowed in a theater this small—along with much of the singing and the general onstage behavior, yells all too loudly and one-dimensionally that this is a work of our own time, when the nuances that tickle you into smiling your way through the contrived story have been brushed aside, and any wit the authors or composers have managed to work into the material will be stomped flat in performance.

All of which is particularly unfair, not only because Molnar's play is a wittily perfect caprice in itself, but because the authors and composer of the musical version have both respected his wit and on occasion added to it. Scott Wentworth is a very fine actor, but I suspect that a directorial eye other than his own might have kept his script from dragging without mutilating it; I'm sure I would think better of Craig Bohmler's score if I heard it on unplugged instruments; and with the miking removed, I might even be able to make out more than six words of every 10 in Marion Adler's lyrics, though the ones I heard fell aptly enough on the ear.

Unplugging, however, wouldn't suffice by itself; the right performers would have to be plugged in. All of the current casting is upside down and backwards. To start with, you have two leading male roles—The Actor, a dashing matinee idol, and The Playwright, one of nature's onlookers. Then you have Robert Cuccioli, a scruffy, restlessly contemporary actor with a croaky rock voice, and Mark Jacoby, an operetta bari-tenor with an exquisite profile. Guess who's playing the hero, and who the outsider? (The fans Cuccioli acquired in Jekyll & Hyde will now all write in furiously, screaming, "How dare you say he can't play a hero." Of course he can play a hero—in a different kind of play.) No wonder Marla Schaffel, as The Actress whose lover is a role invented by her husband, looks more than a little perplexed. She doesn't even have anyone to turn to, since Derin Altay, as The Dresser who is the sardonic voice of experience, seems neither cynical nor knowing. Rusty Ferracane (The Wig Master) and Kate Dawson (The Wardrobe Mistress) seem to know more about what they're doing than anyone else onstage. And quite the oddest aspect of the evening is that Cuccioli, when he makes up as the imaginary Guardsman, comes off far better than when he's playing the guy who puts on the makeup; the one thing Broadway actors don't know, in the year 2000, is how to be actorish. As Bernard Shaw always told his casts, "You can't be too stagy for the stage."

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