Taking a multiple award-winning show on the road has several potential pitfalls, particularly when the only member of the original four-person cast plays a supporting role. The production of David Auburn's "Proof", now passing through Boston, is a faithful re-creation of the Broadway show, which was itself moved from the Manhattan Theatre Club where it originated. What's missing is the leading lady who was with the project since its beginning in 1999. Chelsea Altman plays Catherine, the younger daughter, the part that won Mary-Louise Parker a Tony, in a variation of the original characterization, no doubt with director Daniel Sullivan's tacit approval. This partial copy, however, reveals the script's thinness, those naturalistic tendencies inherent in writing for the popular media which substitute everyday cliche for meaningful dialogue. Altmanand uncredited dressersare however extremely adept at fast costume changes.
All performances are in fact first class. Veteran actor Robert Foxworth, as Robert, the father of the family, gets much of the press attention due to his TV credits, but may actually be playing the part of the father more interestingly than it was written. Still there's not enough in the text to answer such questions as "What was his wife, the girls' mother, like?", "When and why did his older daughter leave home?", and all the other family issues raised but not resolved onstage. NY cast member, Stephen Kunken as Hal, a geeky former grad student now a fledgling math professor, has even less to work with. All we learn of Hal's past is that he also grew up in Chicago. But in the narrow range of the part, his work is convincing with a kind of bland charm. Tasha Lawrence, as Claire, the older sister, plays a character who is all surface, on the surface. We believe her, but the author hasn't provided any reason to empathize with her situation beyond the fact that she's been the family's main support for the past few year's as her father apparently sank into dementia. Interestingly, John Lee Beatty's set, the realistic back porch of a gone-to-seed residence near the UC Campus becomes something of a character as well, another part of the puzzle presented onstage. All the detail and a glimpsed interior serve to gloss over some of the more routine moments in the action. The drama might seem a bit more contrived, especially in a proscenium house, without such attention.
While the general impression of the piece is realistic in the well-made play manner, its structure is essentially surrealistic in the cinematic terms. The first scene turns out to be a dialogue with a hallucination -- or is it a ghost? Either would be acceptable under current entertainment. norms. The timeline is interrupted by two flashbacks that provide clues to the past without really illuminating the current action. They merely verify it. What plot there is, is presented as a bit of a mystery, one concluded a bit too easily in this production. While the concept is engaging, the final effect is rather like watching a fairly routine made-for-TV movie. The first act, mostly expository, is strongest, enough to keep the audience tuned in. The second, which must make good on premises implied in the title is only moderately successful, as tensions between the two sisters escalate, and questions about the proof are hashed out. Whether or not the heroine is mad, as she fears, seems incidental at the final curtain.
The number of awards this script received says a lot about the state of dramatic writing in America. The text's promise seems to have been rewarded beyond its realization. "Proof" is competently written, Auburn's small cast of characters is superficially interesting, and there appears to be an important central question. It was easy to choose this effort given the somewhat tired dramaturgy of its competition last year. But much of this content is driven more by what is marketable than by what illumination the play might be able to provide to life's uncertainties. The love interest is almost obligatory, the final resolution ambiguous. Complex family relationships are hinted at, but hardly explored. As is so many current pieces, merely exploring a problem is taken as sufficient effort, Audiences are expected to put it all together. The real final question isn't about how the mathematical proof in the title was arrived at, but "where's Act III ?," the proof of the drama.
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