It All Adds Up

avid Auburn's Pulitzer-winning play, Proof, has been much discussed and debated, both in the United States and in London, where Gwyneth Paltrow starred in it last year. As Proof opens, we learn that the protagonist, Catherine, interrupted her own life and education when her father, Robert, a mathematical genius, succumbed to madness. She has taken care of him for five years. Her sister, Claire, supports both Robert and Catherine financially but lives in New York while they remain in Chicago; she believes Robert should be institutionalized. Robert dies. Enter his protegé, Hal, now a mathematics professor, to sort through the old man's papers.

We all experience a work of art through our own individual lenses. Literary types like to discuss whether Proof is as deep as it initially seems, as profound as Pinter or as clever as Stoppard (nothing is as clever as Stoppard). Mathematicians concern themselves with the way the play portrays their profession: Auburn suggests that the best work is generally done by very young practitioners and that mathematics is a solitary occupation, a rare science in which revolutionary discoveries can be made by one person working alone in an attic, sans lab, grants, assistants and expensive equipment. He also depicts mathematicians as both otherworldly souls and serious partyers, much given to taking speed. Mathematicians, too, have a lot to say about the plausibility of Auburn's plot, which concerns a groundbreaking theorem that may or may not have been worked out by Catherine.

I once had the opportunity to interview one of the mathematical giants of the twentieth century, Paul Erdos. The opportunity was wasted on me, I suppose, because I understand nothing of mathematics, but he was gracious and open, and it's a memory I cherish. Erdos, a Hungarian Jew, had been persecuted by both fascist and communist regimes; during the McCarthy years, he was not allowed into the United States. He spent his life traveling, publishing papers and teaching at various universities. He stayed at the homes of fellow mathematicians and gave away almost all the money he earned, often to promising students. He told me jokes about mathematics and spoke with rue and humor about Uncle Sam (the United States) and Uncle Joe (Stalin and Soviet Russia).

When Erdos died in 1996 at the age of 83, the obituaries lauded his achievements and repeated anecdotes about his famed eccentricity. They said his mother had been so protective that he hadn't learned to butter a piece of toast for himself until he was 21, that he wore sandals because he had trouble tying his own shoes. They also said he used to speak of a great book in the sky, maintained by God himself and containing the most elegant proofs of every mathematical problem. He said he wished he could have had just one glimpse into that book.

To me, the primary achievement of Proof is that it communicates -- even to someone as ignorant as myself -- the beauty of mathematics and the joy and vulnerability of those who devote themselves to it.

Other critics have discussed Proof as a play about family dynamics, the push-pull between two daughters -- one of them deeply attached to their father, from whom she may have inherited both genius and mental fragility, the other conventionally intelligent and determined to succeed at a regular profession. For still other viewers, Proof is primarily about the mystery of genius and the relationship between creativity and madness.

Whether Proof will go down in the history of theater as a genuinely great work is impossible to say, but the fact that it supports such a variety of interpretations and so much depth of discussion reflects the richness of the script. The play is also well constructed, with lots of interesting conflicts, a plot that holds our interest, themes worth pondering, and fully developed characters.

It's nice to see Curious Theatre Company -- which, to its credit, makes a point of mounting contemporary plays -- tackle a script worthy of the group's energy. Almost everything about the evening coheres. The cast is terrific: Each individual performance is deeply thought through and completely realized, and the cast members work beautifully together. Catherine is an unusual protagonist, a touchy, quirky, depressive young woman who sleeps away much of her time, slops around in worn old clothes and who can be roused to passion only by mathematics -- and eventually by math professor Hal. There's an endearing softness about her, but she also has a temper and is given to flashes of intellectual arrogance, as when she tells her sister there's no point in her trying to understand the disputed proof, because "it's not a muffin recipe."

Sister Claire could easily be the villain of the piece, yet neither the playwright nor actress C. Kelly Leo will permit this. Claire isn't two-dimensional. Though you hate some of her actions, Leo makes sure you understand their source. Who wouldn't cling to a rigidly normal life after growing up with a father and sister so deeply and exclusively bonded to each other and so loftily brilliant? Leo's Claire has the practiced smile of a professional airline hostess, but there's a controlled desperation underneath it. She's also very funny: Who'd have thought a line like "Maybe Hal would like a bagel?" could bring down the house?

Brett Aune is one of the finest actors around, and he brings both passion and particularity to the role of Hal. You believe he's brainy: Just watch the squinched intensity with which he listens to Robert discuss mathematics. He's also nerdy and nerdily charming; the energy between him and Catherine -- sexual, intellectual, vulnerable, protective -- is completely disarming. Paul Borillo turns in a warm, moving performance as Robert. He's particularly effective in the scene in which the mathematician seems to find his ability to work again. He makes the fire that produced Robert's breakthroughs transparent to the audience, as well as the jolting meltdown of that extraordinary intellect.

Director Christy Montour-Larson has clearly worked empathetically with these fine actors. Bill Curley's set is solid, balanced, realistic and finely detailed; Matthew Morgan has provided aching violin music, and the lighting is evocative -- particularly the sunset glow at the upper window, behind which Robert scribbles in his endless notebooks. It's particularly pleasurable to watch Proof in the intimate space at the Acoma Center, where you can hear the actors breathing and become absorbed in the world they create.

In short, this is a triumph for Curious, and one of the best evenings of theater I've experienced in the past couple of years. -- Wittman