Proof Positive of Fragile Life and Love Through Higher Math

I know where I stand when it comes to the dramatically brainy subjects of nuclear physics, Fermat’s Last Theorem or-to pluck another example out of thin air-Heisenberg’s dear old Uncertainty Principle, which, as everyone surely knows by now, equals the square on the hippopotamus provided the photon of Z is greater than the particle of Y in the collision of whatever it is that’s supposed to be colliding out there in the great big beautiful universe. And how are you today, Mrs. Clinton?

As I was saying, I know exactly where I stand on scientific matters. I stand shamefaced and headachy at the bottom of the class. As the wise man says: “It’s all a mystery to me.” Science and befuddlement are the passing Zeitgeist of today’s drama. But my relief that David Auburn’s Proof is less about its ballyhooed higher mathematics than the fragility of life and love was matched by my delight in his fine and tender play. Proof is sure to be Mr. Auburn’s breakthrough drama. I would place it much higher than this season’s PulitzerPrize–winning Dinner With Friends by Donald Margulies with its familiar thirtysomething drift into middle-aged mortality and moans. Proof surprises us with its aliveness and intelligent modesty, and we have not met these characters before. Mr. Auburn takes pleasure in knowledge. (Three of his four characters are scientists.) At the same time, he is unshowily fresh and humane, and he has written a lovely play.

Happily, too, Proof has been blessed with a brilliant production at the Manhattan Theatre Club. What successful plays on and off Broadway haven’t been directed by Daniel Sullivan lately? He’s on a roll. His memorable revival of A Moon for the Misbegotten gave us three of the greatest performances we could see under one roof. (He directed Dinner With Friends , too.) His quartet of actors in Proof is remarkably good, with Mary-Louise Parker at her luminous and grungy best as Catherine, the dropout daughter of a genius mathematician who went crazy. The four actors are so effortlessly natural it’s as if they truly inhabit that ramshackle professor’s house in Chicago designed by John Lee Beatty. We are, in other words, thoroughly absorbed in all that happens. But do not read any further, my friends, if you’re likely to be troubled by my revealing one or two twists of the plot.

Still reading, eh? Well, one hopes . But my anxiety not to spoil the play for anyone is sincere, though Proof is no detective game (while its title implies one). Refreshingly, for one thing, it’s about fathers and daughters with nary a whiff of incest even suggested. It is about pure love, as the play itself is about love and random discovery. Mary-Louise Parker and Larry Bryggman as Robert (Catherine’s adored nutty father) play beautifully in all their scenes together. But their surprising, wonderfully acted scene that opens Proof amounts to a coup de théâtre .

Catherine, herself a mathematician who sacrificed her promising career to care for her sick dad, is seen on the porch looking as if she hasn’t slept in a week or two. She might be cracking up. It’s her 25th birthday. Her father, played by the brilliant Mr. Bryggman with the disheveled, springy, electric air of the manic, exhorts her not to give up. The wrecked, protective genius and the bright, wasted daughter have a Salingeresque feel to them. They might easily look for bananafish together. And as they talk, they slip into mathspeak as naturally as breathing. “You see?” the father cries delightedly. “Even your depression is mathematical.” But Catherine’s father has recently died. Her conversational connection to love and squalor-and sanity-is with him. The father’s funeral is about to take place.

In comparison, the play-within-a-play that quite famously wrong-foots us in the opening scene of Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing is merely a tricky device of Stoppardian cleverness. It doesn’t touch us. But Mr. Auburn’s gentle opening scene is genuine and genuinely surprising. He’s too good to milk the dead father for easy sentimentality. But the father will appear again, I’m glad to say, “shuffling around like a … very smelly ghost” (as his daughter puts it) in time past and present.

Catherine’s contemporary, Hal (played by Ben Shenkman), her father’s former math protégé, is going through hundreds of his notebooks only to find them rambling nonsense written when he was mad. Mr. Shenkman is perfectly understated as the bungling math geek (and part-time rock drummer) who’s in love with Catherine. “How embarrassing is it if I say last night was wonderful?” he asks her awkwardly. “It’s only embarrassing,” she replies, “if I don’t agree.”

The fourth character is Catherine’s disliked sister, Claire, a pragmatic Wall Street type anxious to save Catherine from potential madness by taking her back with her to New York (which is a well-meaning idea that couldn’t be more insane). Again, Johanna Day is exactly right as Claire with her bourgeois small talk and undercurrent of sibling rivalry. “The other day he made vegetarian chili!” she yammers about her future husband. “What the fuck are you talking about?” asks Catherine.

The plot turns on a question that I won’t divulge, though for me the one flaw in Proof is that its resolution isn’t really much in doubt. But there’s a great deal to enjoy here, even for a math clod like me. Not least is the shared joy of discovery-call it truth, the “Eureka Moment”-that Proof has in common with Michael Frayn’s drier Copenhagen . Arthur Koestler defined it as the ecstatic “aha!” (as opposed to “ho-hum”), which illuminates some shattering discovery that has been kissed by genius or God. Mr. Auburn is saying, in his elegant way, that the discovery of love is like this-and just as random, just as difficult to find. This young playwright has found his audience, and we are glad.

The Manhattan Theatre Club is risking a lot of late with its welcome program of new plays. More power to it! I much preferred my favorite Fuddy Meers , which premiered at M.T.C., to its admired The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife by Charles Busch (soon to transfer to Broadway). Those are the odds with the shock-or disappointment-of the new. But I’m afraid its other new play, David Marshall Grant’s Current Events , which has just opened on its small second stage, is overambitious.

Mr. Grant’s first play, Snakebit , was well received, but his latest never makes up its mind what it wants to be: madcap dysfunctional family saga, coming-of-age play, coming-out play, political satire or serious moral discourse about compromise and cynicism in the age of Clinton. I was glad the cell phones were ringing onstage for once. But I regret that I didn’t believe a word of Current Events , including its story about a future Democratic senator who hopes to get away with his dirty little secret: He may or may not have had an illegitimate son who-we can only suspect-might be his “nephew,” the 15-year-old brat and closet homosexual who’s been starving himself to death for nine days because, among other stuff, his adopted mother, a ditz and ex-model, has forgotten to buy him a Christmas tree. There’s also an old-fashioned liberal, a rather sweet matriarch in a wheelchair who’s meant to be an ogre and is fond of singing “Puff the Magic Dragon,” and a young, somewhat sinister multimillionaire political assistant with lots of files who once wanted to be a hairdresser. The brat strongly suspects who his dad is. You do the math.