Unless you're one of those people who sign up for such seminars as "Relational Holism in Quantum Mechanics," mathematics is anything but riveting and suspenseful. Yet mathematics—specifically the impossibly involved, high-level computations engaged in only by someone with serious brain cells and not much else to waste them on—drives David Auburn's riveting, suspenseful play Proof.
The winner of a wheelbarrow full of big awards (including the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for drama and the Tony Award for best new play), Proof is making its Southern California premiere in Los Angeles. This is the national tour of the same show that wowed them on the Great White Way, identical in every way except for the cast, from director Dan Sullivan's blocking to John Lee Beatty's naturalistic set (the back porch of a deteriorating home in Chicago's Hyde Park).
It's a good play bordering on awesome, but a touch overrated. The question that drives the plot is fascinating—has the depressed daughter of a famous-but-addled mathematician inherited his mental illness as well as his brilliance? But Auburn ignores a wealth of material in the relationship between the brilliant-but-depressed Catherine and her recently deceased father, Robert: the line between madness and sanity; whether genius is inextricably linked to psychological problems; the possibility that mathematical brilliance specifically mirrors something in the human soul. But none of that is broached in Proof. Instead of a whydunit, we get a whodunit, a tautly drawn suspense yarn, a skillfully written and immaculately well-appointed detective story sans gumshoes, platinum blondes and rotating bookcases.
The suspense rotates around a groundbreaking mathematical formula found amid 103 notebooks filled with the mad scribbling of a once-famed mathematician, Robert (a tightly drawn Robert Foxworth, who always seems one word away from discovering something profound and one step away from crapping himself). Robert drifted in and out of lucidity for the last half of his life, and Hal, one of his protégés (an annoyingly earnest, pie-eyed Stephen Kunken), is going through his recently deceased mentor's papers to see if maybe, amid the manic scrawls, there's something worth finding.
There is. It's in a notebook given to Hal by Robert's daughter, Catherine, who seems well on her way to the same darkness that finally claimed her father. The notebook contains a remarkable formula, something to do with prime numbers, although it's never quite clear why anybody but a bunch of math geeks would care. But the formula itself doesn't truly matter in the context of this play. What does is discovering who the author is and whether someone with such a fragile grasp on "reality" could produce something so provocative.
Proof may not be as intellectually satisfying as the conflict between mental illness and brilliance would suggest. But it's still a compelling, riveting experience based on plot alone. And this production is worth seeing for at least one performance: Chelsea Altman delivers a stunning performance as Catherine, as poignant as it is powerful. This is a role that many, many actresses will yearn to play, but I can't imagine anyone coming closer than Altman has in finding Catherine's achingly human pulse. If the playwright had tackled his material with as much fervor and dedication as the actress does, Proof would be an undeniable Great Play rather than a highly entertaining but ultimately unfulfilling detective story.
Proof at Wilshire Theatre, 8440 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (323) 468-1716 or (714) 740-7878. Thurs.-Fri., June 13-14, 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7:30 p.m. $42-$62.