Director Daniel Sullivan has many talents; one need only look at the past few years, and his glorious productions of classics such as Ah, Wilderness! and soon-to-be-classics such as Dinner With Friends, for evidence. But he has a particular knack for stage kisses. Hopeless romantic that I am, I remember these three most vividly: Lisa Emery and Michael Hayden in Far East (the kiss was sweet, tentative, proper); Cherry Jones and Gabriel Byrne in Broadway's A Moon for the Misbegotten (passionate, desperate, clinging); and, now, Mary-Louise Parker and Ben Shenkman in Proof.
Before the Proof kiss, there's not much more than basic exposition: He's a geeky mathematician who studied with her just-deceased father, she's a would-be mathematician who dropped out of school to care for dad. He's at the funeral with cold beers in hand, she is poured into a slinky black dress that she would never pick out for herself. She's vulnerable, he's smitten, and the kiss is awkward, tender, and heartbreaking...one that won't soon be forgotten.
Neither will David Auburn's light but smart play. First of all, any show that brings Mary-Louise Parker back to the theater must be a good thing. Proof begins a bit choppily, smelling an awful lot like an episode of the NBC sob-fest Providence: Cathy (Parker) is chatting and sparring with her dead father (Larry Bryggman, looking more and more like John Cullum every day). She's in her prime at 25--yes, Parker can still play 25. But Cathy is stuck. She's worried that she's going to lose her marbles like her genius pop, and her angst isn't helped by the fact that a grad student named Hal (Shenkman) is rifling through her father's old notebooks in hopes of unearthing some buried mathematical treasure. (He's also searching for some affection from Cathy.)
On hand to stir up trouble is Cathy's blow-dried blonde sister Claire (an appropriately icy Johanna Day), who blows in from New York with plenty of opinions, misconceptions, and the aforementioned black dress. Crepe-and-silk-clad Claire clashes, predictably, with boho chic Cathy; Claire wants to whisk the girl off to New York where she'll have a cute apartment and access to Park Avenue shrinks. But Hal and Cathy make it with the help of Auburn's deliciously audacious pick-up line, "So, Hal, what do you do for sex?" And Dad pops in and out when background is necessary--like when Cathy gives Hal the key to a drawer in which is stored a notebook containing a revolutionary mathematical proof. Dad must have written it in one of his rare moments of lucidity. But, no; Cathy says she wrote it. Naturally, no one believes her.
Part character study, part family drama, and part love story, Proof is a terrifically engaging if ever-so-slightly-contrived drama. Auburn incorporates the oft-used and oft-misused flashback device expertly: In a nod (coincidental or not, I wonder?) to Richard Greenberg's little-known gem Three Days of Rain, also produced by MTC, a date and a notebook provide an important thread. The author also makes excellent use of the mathematical theme, more as a framework than as actual subject matter (Copenhagen this ain't). And Parker and Bryggman move effortlessly through the years, even if their characters are a bit sketchily drawn.
Sullivan gives this drama his trademark gentle gloss, and Parker brings to it her usual vivacity, appeal, and professionalism. She's also adorable with Ben Shenkman. If you're looking for the heart of Proof, look no further: It's in their kiss.
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