How many plays can you name that have won the Drama Desk Award for Best New Play, the Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Play, the Tony and New York Drama Critics’ Circle Awards for Best Play, and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama?
David Auburn’s Proof is that rarity, a major prize-winner now making a welcome return to Los Angeles in an impeccably directed intimate production by Moth Theatre’s John Markland, ingeniously designed by Justin Huen and sensationally performed by Amanda Brooks, Chris Marquette, Felicity Price, and John Cirigilano, a foursome any major American theater would be thrilled to have grace their stage.
A drama centering on the aspiring mathematician daughter of a world-renowned math genius might not seem a premise ripe for theatrical magic, at least not on the surface, but the playwright’s mix of math and madness is a heady one.
We first meet university professor Robert (Cirigliano) and his gifted daughter Catherine (Brooks) on Catherine’s 25th birthday, Dad having brought home a bottle of champagne to celebrate the event. Before long, conversation has turned to Robert’s long history of mental illness and Catherine’s fear that she may have inherited more than just a mathematical mind from her father—a fear quickly understood when Robert lets slip a bombshell (at least for us in the audience), one that would seem to offer proof that Catherine might in fact be as loony as dear old Dad.
Meanwhile inside Robert’s house, Catherine has given Hal (Marquette), her fathers’s former student, permission to go through his professor’s notebooks in hopes of finding out if perhaps, during a period of remission, Robert wrote down another of those brilliant proofs he had come up with so often as a young man. So far, however, Hal has unearthed nothing, and Catherine begins to suspect that the reason for his search may be less altruistic than Hal claims. Might he not be looking for a proof to pass off as his own and thereby insure himself a lucrative future in his chosen field?
Just as Hal is about to leave for the evening, Catherine makes a discovery that leaves her, quite naturally, outraged … or at least she is until Hal persuades her of the purity of his intentions. It helps too that Hal is darned charming for a math geek, a rock musician to boot, and someone who’s had a thing for Catherine for at least four years now.
Though Hal provides Catherine with at least one good reason to hope for a bright few months ahead, her older sister Claire (Price) is another matter. The successful New York financial analyst may have ended up with only “one one-thousandth” of her father’s prodigious ability with numbers, but she’s also avoided inheriting any tendency towards mental instability. Claire has arrived back at the family homestead aiming to convince Catherine to move to the Big Apple, live close by older sis, and get the psychiatric help she apparently needs.
As might be expected, Catherine wants none of her sister’s plans, and even less so when a romantic turn of events with Hal gives her even more reason to want to stay put in Chicago. Newly confident about herself and about Hal’s feelings for her, Catherine presents him with the key to a locked drawer in her father’s desk. There, the math geek makes what might well be an earth-shattering discovery, the repercussions of which provide plenty of Act Two fireworks.
In titling his play Proof, writer Auburn has more in mind than simply the mathematical proofs Robert made his life’s work. At its heart, Proof is the story of a young woman’s quest to prove her sanity and her genius, both to herself and to the outside world, no easy task considering her legacy as well as the doubts her sister and Hal have cast over the claim that is central to Proof’s gripping second act.
Production helmer Markland had already achieved the proverbial “90% of a director’s job” when he handpicked as fine a four-member cast as you’d find at the Pasadena Playhouse, South Coast Rep, or any other major regional house, all of whom bring Auburn’s words to richly-textured life.
The highest praise I can give leading lady Brooks’ Catherine is that the busy young film/TV actress’s work is so in-the-moment, it seems not the result of what was surely a long rehearsal process but rather a young woman’s unraveling right now before our eyes. Brooks makes us believe in both Catherine’s intelligence and in her fear of insanity, share her frustration at a sister who doubts her and her joy at finding a potential beau who might just believe her, and root for her even at her most prickly. Succinctly put, this is one of the best lead performances you’ll see all year.
All three supporting players do absolutely terrific work as well, and what a sensational supporting trio this is, beginning with Price, whose screenplay for and lead performance in the Sundance hit Wish You Were Here won the Australian writer-actor deserved acclaim and awards. Not only is Price’s American accent as spot-on as the normally British-voweled Brooks’s, she takes the play’s least sympathetic character and makes us understand her struggles and recognize the love that motivates her meddling.
There aren’t many actors who can boast of a twenty-five-year career at age thirty, but Marquette (who made his Broadway debut at age nine) is that exceptional actor, his near lifelong experience evidenced in an exciting featured turn as edgy nerd/knight in shining armor Hal. (There’s a scene late in Proof between Brooks and Marquette of such breathtaking subtlety that watching it could easily be assigned as acting class homework.)
Last but definitely not least is stage-and-screen vet Cirigliano’s electric performance as three incarnations of Robert, first the idealized father of Catherine’s imagination, then the imperfect one he was in reality, and lastly the mad man he became.
Scenic designer Huen deserves highest marks (along with director Markland) for allowing us to see inside Catherine’s literally broken home, not just the wooded porch specified in Auburn’s script but back into Robert’s study where we can observe Hal at work, most significantly at one key moment, instead of simply witnessing what’s “happening” outside the house. Huen’s lighting design reveals considerable imagination as well, with additional kudos due a first-rate sound design and pitch-perfect costumes, both designs uncredited.
Proof is produced by Markland and Brenda Davidson. Daniel Coronel is stage manager.
It seemed for a while in the half-decade following Proof’s Broadway debut that Auburn’s masterwork was just about everywhere in town, but it’s been several years now since an L.A. theater company has revived a play that ranks right up there with Rabbit Hole, Doubt, Other Desert Cities, and anything by Donald Margulies or Richard Greenberg.
That Moth Theater returns from a nearly two-year hiatus with a couldn’t-be-better production of a must-be-seen play is news to be celebrated as this New Year begins, and if you don’t believe me, I know exactly where you can find Proof.
The Moth Theatre, 4359 Melrose Avenue, Los Angeles.
January 15, 2105
Photos: Korbis Sarafyan