Proof Positive

When David Auburn's Proof first premiered in 2000, it took the theater world by storm. Quickly transferring to Broadway from the Manhattan Theater Club, it garnered five Tony Awards, including Best Play, and won the Pulitzer for drama. Auburn's compelling work about trust, sacrifice, and the wonder and madness of mathematics captured the popular imagination and critical attention. It was an intensely captivating play that deserved all of its accolades. Ground Up Productions is now reviving Proof at the Manhattan Theater Source. Its production, which is much more modest in scale than the original, further proves that this play has all the makings of a modern classic. Its early success cannot be attributed to the size of the house (Manhattan Theater Source has a few hundred fewer seats than the Walter Kerr Theater) or whether household names are in the show (the Broadway production starred Mary-Louise Parker; this production stars four relative unknowns). Proof works first and foremost because of Auburn's brilliant writing. Still as engaging as ever, the play, directed by Adam Gerdts in this revival, does not disappoint.

The story begins when Robert (Stuart Marshall), an acclaimed mathematician, startles his mathematician daughter, Catherine (Kate Middleton), who is asleep on the porch in the middle of the night. He wakes her so they can celebrate her 25th birthday with a bottle of cheap champagne. But when his former student Hal (Guy Olivieri) appears, Robert vanishes.

Actually, it is the night before Robert's funeral, and Catherine has only dreamed that she saw her father. She wakes from her slumber when Hal emerges from the attic after poring over notebooks filled with Robert's nonsensical writings scrawled during his years of mental breakdown. The young mathematician is determined to find any shred of brilliance left among these scribblings.

Eventually, Catherine does show him a work of unquestionable genius, but its authorship is called into question by Hal and her sister, Claire (Amy Heidt), who is in town for the funeral and to convince Catherine to live with her in New York. Claire, a mildly successful, even-keeled urbanite, thinks her sister inherited both her father's intelligence and his susceptibility to insanity. With no concrete proof as to whose work it actually is, Hal, a man of science, is forced to realize the unpredictability of true brilliance.

Catherine sacrificed college to care for her ailing father, and Middleton's performance captures the social awkwardness and gruffness that comes with such isolation. But Middleton fails to display the quality of madness that Auburn equates with genius—an insanity, it's implied, that Catherine may also succumb to, like her father. Rather, Middleton is depressed, mopey, and withdrawn. It makes her all the more human, but forces one to wonder whether someone without a hint of madness could in fact be truly brilliant. Middleton's performance begs the question without convincingly answering it.

Olivieri, Marshall, and Heidt are all strong in their supporting roles. Olivieri's Hal is passionate—about math and Catherine—but he is ultimately limited by his work and mediocre career. Even in his distrust of Catherine, he is kind and motivated by his feelings for her, yet he remains aloof, as one would imagine someone obsessed with numbers would be.

Marshall embodies Robert's manic brilliance, which is illustrated in Catherine's flashbacks when he switches from lovable and caring to frenzied and possessed. Heidt's stability and assuredness as Claire balances out Middleton's Catherine. Claire has spent years working endlessly to pay the bills for her father and sister once her father could no longer work. She is smart and successful, but in a bland way when compared with her sister and father, Still, Heidt conveys this without giving a one-note performance.

The production is guided by Gerdt's deft directing, which keeps the pace from flagging. Travis R. McHale's lighting design helps maintain a sense of timing and rhythm, as all the action takes place on a quaint and intimate back porch at varying points over a long weekend.

Overall, Ground Up's Proof shows what makes this play a classic in the first place: it is intense, intelligent, and thoughtful. If you've seen it before, it deserves a second viewing. If you haven't, definitely go to the Manhattan Theater Source for this worthwhile production.

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