The Show-Stopping Number

Doing the calculus on mathematical dramas

Now that I've seen David Auburn's Pulitzer Prize-winning crowd-pleaser Proof, I can finally make my list of Ten Plays and Movies I've Seen About Math and Science, 1994-2004 (unranked, excluding science fiction, in alphabetical order, and with capsule reviews): Arcadia (brilliant and rib-tickling); A Beautiful Mind (Opie must be stopped!); Copenhagen (not as good as the tobacco); An Experiment with an Air Pump (way better than Air Bud); Good Will Hunting (favorite line: "Do you like apples?"); I.Q. (a better Tim Robbins movie than Fraternity Vacation); Legally Blonde 2 (not about math, but the title does contain the number 2); The Love Song of J. Robert Oppenheimer (not exactly "the bomb," as our young friends say, but much better than jazz-fusion group Hiroshima); Pi (in black and white); Proof (see below).

Proof is one of the most successful plays of the 21st century, and a touring production came through town in 2002, so I suspect some of you have already seen the show. But for those of you who haven't, I hope to keep you as clueless as possible, something my college long division prof did for me. The show offers a number of somewhat corny but effective surprises, and the more they can sneak up on you, the more fun you'll have. There are few things worse (starvation, for one) than having some schmuck give away a story's secrets--I'll never forgive a certain blabbermouth, sock-thieving ex-roommate who, just as I was sitting down to read the Book of Matthew, felt the need to tell me that the hero dies in the end.

Set in the present day with a few flashbacks, Proof is the story of Catherine (Carolyn Pool), a sharp-tongued 25-year-old Chicagoan whose father, Robert (Alan Sorenson), has just died. The old man was a brilliant mathematician who had thrice revolutionized his field before turning 25. But then, like any genius worth his salt at the box office, he went nuts, leading Catherine to drop out of college and provide full-time home care. One of Robert's protégés, handsome and fun-loving Hal (Peter Hansen in a performance that's long on charm but could use more bite, more arrogance perhaps), is plowing through his former teacher's crazy-era notebooks for publishable diamonds in the rough. Catherine's businesslike older sister, Claire (Kelly Hilliard), has returned home from New York City for the funeral and hopes to get her bummed-out sister to start a new life in Manhattan.

Lords of the Three-Ring Binder:  Carolyn Pool and Peter Hansen in 'Proof'
Petronella J. Ytsma
Lords of the Three-Ring Binder: Carolyn Pool and Peter Hansen in 'Proof'

Despite this play's Pulitzer and its occasional discussions of prime numbers, Proof is fairly light stuff that succeeds mostly as a romantic comedy and a mystery. Don't look for deep insights into heredity or the psychology of genius. Look instead for the kind of not-dumb-but-not-pointy-headed stuff that tends to do well at the Oscars, a theory that will be tested by the forthcoming screen adaptation starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Anthony Hopkins. Obligatory F-words notwithstanding, it's an old-fashioned play, and a bit square--not in its subject matter so much as in its sense of humor. A recurring joke, for instance, involves the hard partying of physicists, which I guess is supposed to be an uproarious incongruity.

The script offers some better jokes than that, though, and director Matt Sciple has smartly underscored the play's light wit without diminishing its romantic, mysterious, or introspective sides. Still, Proof's residence somewhere between laugh-out-loud comedy and thought-provoking drama can feel like limbo. Though Pool never loses our interest or sympathy, her performance could use some of the inventiveness that she brought to her recent role in Illusion Theater's Mercy of a Storm. For Catherine's especially blue moods, Pool slouches and shuffles and speaks in an exhausted monotone, which is only effective to a point. Her interpretation is perfectly pitched to Catherine's acid sarcasm. But her deflated bearing and tone is also a touch obvious--labored, you might say, in its listlessness.

Then again, the fecklessness Pool brings to Catherine is crucial to maintaining the show's best secret, which in keeping with my earlier pledge I won't speak any more of, except to say that Catherine is really a dead, mask-wearing, hermaphrodite botanist. (Or is she?)

 
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