Saturday, January 24, 2015

Proof by David Auburn

L Chris Marquette - Amanda Brooks 

By Joe Straw

My recent circumstances have me in contact with a number of Ph.D. students who answer both “yes” and “no” in response to a question, all in the same sentence. The students are at times emotional and confused, but extremely bright.  All are in need of that one extra push by an equally bright professor to get them focused, over the hump, and on to their Ph.Ds. 

There are a lot of tissues expended in this process. – The Narrator.

The Moth Theatre Company presents Proof by David Auburn, directed by John Markland, and produced by John Markland and Brenda Davidson.  Proof is the winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Tony Award, Drama Desk Award for Best Play, New York Drama Critics Circle Award, and the Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Play and will be playing through February 15, 2015.

Proof at the Moth is an outstanding play, featuring an equally exceptional cast, giving us moments of brilliance, all in the name of mathematics. But there are other themes in David Auburn’s carefully crafted play, such as caring for the infirmed, dealing with depression, a competing sibling rivalry, and gender bias, which are also addressed in grand fashion.   

Maneuvering a mathematical life in the sacred name of reckoning while trying to connect the arithmetical dots of life is a grand theme in this play.  (Puns intended) And proof is an unwritten test from which all lives must pass.  In this case, it is proving you are brilliant, and proving you aren’t insane.  In either case, this proves to be an extremely difficult and problematic obstacle for our main character to overcome.   

As our play begins on the back porch of a Chicago home, he just appears, from the middle of nothingness, as a bright glowing being with a purpose, watching his clement daughter, sitting in his chair, in a daze or in a dream, in the late hours of the evening thinking, always thinking, for a reason that will become clear, or not.

“Can’t sleep?” – Robert

“Jesus, you scared me.” – Catherine

And so we begin, near the end, almost near the end in this non-linear play, where Robert (John Cirigliano), a brilliant mathematician and former University of Chicago professor, interrupts his daughter, Catherine (Amanda Brooks), in the dead of night. 

Catherine’s despairing reflections embraces her like the comfortable family chair in which she sits this late evening as she waits outside on her porch for Hal (Christopher Marquette), a recent Ph.D. and now a professor, to finish his work and come downstairs.

But something’s a little different tonight.  Robert has got a little surprise for his daughter.

“Happy Birthday.” – Robert

“Dad.” – Catherine

“Do I ever forget?” - Robert

Robert presents Catherine with a champagne bottle and asks if he should pop the cork but given their present circumstances, Catherine takes matters under her control.  Robert mentions getting glasses but Catherine takes a swig from the bottle.  She offers Robert some bubbly.

“Do you” – Catherine

“No, go ahead.” – Robert

And there Catherine sits, disheveled, sitting like she hasn’t slept or bathed in quite a while, and there is not one single friend to comfort her on this night.  Robert has some lame idea about a inviting a friend over, someone who moved away a number of years ago.

“What about Claire?” – Robert

“She’s not my friend, she’s my sister.  And she’s in New York.   And I don’t like her.” - Catherine

Claire (Felicity Price) is scheduled to arrive the following day, coming to recombine with her sister in their time of need.    

Well, why this night? 

Robert says the best thing to do, when one is up late at night, is mathematics.  Catherine isn’t keen on the idea.  Suddenly Robert gets a little upset with her  - saying that she is throwing her life away.

But after a little coaxing, Robert gets Catherine to do a little math and we see she has a bright mathematical mind.  But, Catherine has a hard time believing in herself and at the age of 25, she believes she is beyond her prime (a positive integer that is not divisible without remainder by any integer except itself and 1, with 1 often excluded) while her father had already done his greatest work by the age of twenty-four.  It was about that age that Robert first showed signs of losing his mental faculties, something Catherine worries about now, speaking to her dead father.

“The simple fact that we can talk about this together is a good sign.” – Robert

“ A good sign?” – Catherine

“Yes!” – Robert

“How could it be a good sign?” – Catherine

Yes, it is a bad sign given Catherine’s present circumstances, and Catherine is wondering now if she losing herself or is deplorably insane.

Robert mysteriously leaves and Hal enters moments later saying he needs another week to go over Robert’s notebooks.  Of course, Catherine is exasperated but Hal says he’s got everything in order.  He tells her that Robert dated his notebooks, and he can take some home, read it, and bring it back if it’s okay with her.

Catherine is not having any part of it.  She says there’s nothing in all of the 103 notebooks.  She says her father was a graphomaniac, someone who has an impulse to write, and he wrote nothing but gibberish near the end of his time.  

Not to be undone Hal says he’s willing to go through all of the notebooks.

“I’m prepared to look at every page.  Are you?” – Hal

“No, I’m not crazy.” – Catherine

Hal, with amatory speculations, changes the subject and invites Catherine to hear his band of merry math geeks.  He plays the drums and promises he won’t sing.  Catherine is not interested since it’s late at night.  

Hal lets it slip that if he could produce one-tenth of what her dad produced, “I could write my own ticket.”

Catherine is suddenly suspicious, demands to see his backpack as proof that he is not stealing any of her father’s work.  Her search of his bag comes up empty.  But when Hal grabs his jacket one of her father’s notebook drops from his coat.

Catherine immediately runs to the phone and calls the police.  Hal tries to calm her down and gives her a reasonable explanation why he is doing what he is doing. She hangs up and, as Hal is leaving, a police siren is heard in the background.

Later, the following morning, Claire, Catherine’s sister, has arrived with her brazen sincerity in tow and is making breakfast, well – she bought stuff at the local market.  Claire, taking charge, has an agenda and is deliberate when pouring milk into Catherine’s coffee moments after Catherine said she wanted hers black.

“How are you feeling about everything?” – Claire

“About “everything”? – Catherine

“About Dad.” – Claire

Obviously Claire is overly concerned about Catherine’s well being, her mental status, her altercation with the police, and the strange unidentified being called “Harold Dobbs.”   She has already taken steps to sell the house and move her sister to New York where she will be in good hands.   

Catherine is not hipped to the idea and is slightly disturbed, slightly being an understatement.  

L - Amanda Brooks - Felicity Price 

John Markland, the director, is exceptional when dealing with the small intimate moments, the coming of two in the heat of passion.  It is during those moments that this production soars.  The opening moment is spectacular and this production is filled with those moments.  But there are slight problem with the first scene, the dead father and daughter scene that provides little mysticism and offers us little more than a typical father/daughter scene.  Strengthening the father/daughter relationship as well as the teacher/student relationship are in order. In a metaphorical manner of speaking, they need to find a way for the little daughter to crawl into her father’s mathematical lap. There are two scenes that speak loudly to me.  One is Catherine leaving for Northwestern without her father knowing about it, which presents the emotional moving on with life; and two is Catherine reading Robert’s theorem that is gibberish when Catherine realizes that her life, as she knows it, is over.

Amanda Brooks gives a wonderful performance as Catherine with a vocal texture that is alluring and exciting.  As the character, Catherine is weary having spent the last five years taking care of her father before his death. And as she speaks to him the night before his funeral, she casts internal doubt on her own sanity. Catherine is lost, not knowing which direction to turn. She knows she is brilliant, questions her sanity, and has to fight off her sister and friend to prove herself.  Elegantly dressed in a beautiful black dress, compliments to her sister for buying it, Catherine is now an alluring force to be reckoned with.  Brooks gives an outstanding performance.

Felicity Price does some amazing work as Claire. Claire is a currency analyst and believes in firmly controlling her life.  She offers herself as the sibling who is mentally stable and willing to take care of her indolent sister.  Claire wants her sister to move to New York City.  Her objective is to get her to New York first, get her an apartment, and have her looked at by some of the finest mental doctors in the land. Hard to do when the sister is an emotional roller coaster. But Claire keeps her composure through the chaos that is her life right now. Claire has a different look than what I imagined a currency analyst to look like (e.g. blouse, blazer, pearl necklace, skirt, and shoes with not-so-high heels).  Instead she wears a thin summer dress and stiletto heels from which she negotiates a back porch and a gravel walkway, with ease. Price, an Australian, has a spot on American accent and a natural rhythm to her movements on stage. Negotiating the trash on the back porch – I’m not sure what that was or how that moves the play – but it all seemed so natural.

Chris Marquette is exceptional as Hal. We first see him as a professor, and then as we go back in time as a doctoral student in which he excels.  Although a professor, he has a lot to learn about accepting truth and not being so clueless and biased toward women in mathematics. Marquette is wonderful in the world of small intimate moments and catching his truth in those moments is what every theatregoer hopes to see. His objective is strong and clear, and his inner conflict is his own worst enemy.

John Cirigliano plays Robert the brilliant mathematician and father. There are moments that ring true to his performance but there is more to add in character development and shoring up the relationship with his daughter.  A professor, and particularly one of this caliber, is the smartest person in the room.  In his lucid moments, his voice commands the space; his thoughts express a clear understanding of his expertise, and include an extreme desire to teach. The opening scene does not ring true to the relationship with his daughter and it slightly misses the humor of it all. Getting out of the chair several times is not specific to the action. The character needs to strengthen his objective.   His daughter leaving him is an emotionally charged scene that does not strike to the heart of the matter.  It is devastating for him and possibly sends him on a downward spiral.

Brenda Davidson does a fine job as the producer.

Justin Huen Scenic and Lighting Design work wonderfully in this space.  Upstage center is a lamp, which serves at the professor’s office, and reminds me of The Blue Room, also on this stage.  The best vantage point to see the production is near downstage far right where you are able to flow right into the home.

Daniel Coronel is the Stage Manager.  

Ken Werther Publicity is the Publicist.

Max Barsness is the Graphic Design.

The Moth Theatre is newly remodeled and looks wonderful.

Run!  Run! Run!  And take a professor with you.

Reservations:  323-609-3676

Moth Theatre
4359 Melrose Avenue
Los Angeles, CA  90029

(Entrance is behind the theatre on Heliotrope)   

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