Outside the Walnut Street Theatre, the poster for David Auburn’s Proof deems the play a “Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece about fathers and daughters.”
While accurate, this tagline really sells the play short. For starters, Proof actually won several awards in 2001, including the Tony Award for Best Play (with the entire original Broadway cast receiving nominations). It was also the basis of a 2005 film of the same title starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Anthony Hopkins, the screenplay having been adapted by Auburn himself. As for the plot, it’s more than a touchy-feely story about a girl and her daddy; it’s a story about what it means to be brilliant. Or crazy. Or both.
Set in Chicago, the play focuses on 25-year-old Catherine (Alex Keiper) as she struggles to cope with the recent death of her father, Robert (Bill Van Horn), a mathematical genius and college professor who suffered from mental illness. A budding mathematician herself, Catherine puts her life on hold to care for him in his final years, developing a special bond that is captured beautifully by Keiper and Van Horn.
Complicating Catherine’s grieving is her estranged, maternal older sister Claire (Krista Apple), who returns from New York for the funeral and immediately begins tending to her like a wounded puppy. It’s Catherine’s combative demeanor toward her sister that yields some of the play’s most memorable quips (“What the fuck is jojoba?”).
Meanwhile, different sparks start to fly between Catherine and her father’s former student, Hal (David Raphaely), who has been stopping by the house to go through his mentor’s hundreds of notebooks filled with intelligible musings. With his mop-top and screechy voice, Raphaely is a perfect fit for the nerdy heartthrob role. Yet, when Hal finally discovers the groundbreaking mathematical proof he was hoping to find, he and Catherine’s brief romance comes to a halt and the plot boils to a head: Catherine claims she wrote it.
Is it possible that Catherine has inherited her father’s extraordinary gift and if so, has she also inherited his madness? No one really knows—not even Catherine. But without a way to really prove the proof’s authorship, Claire and Hal lean toward the latter. That’s the thing about relationships—they’re often as complex and uncertain as a mathematical proof.
Having read Auburn’s sharp stage play back in high school I was elated to finally see it live expecting it to completely enhance the experience—a wonderful reminder of why I fell in love with the play in the first place. But even in the dark, intimate Independence Studio on 3, I felt no more connected to the characters and left the theater slightly under-whelmed.
In my attempt to pinpoint where the play might have gone wrong, I couldn’t help but compare it with the film, which despite adding very minor additional characters and cutting some of the expletives, brought Auburn’s original masterpiece to life almost exactly how I envisioned it.
Paltrow, who actually first played Catherine in a London stage production, nails her to a T. She plays Catherine as detached and slightly manic, leaving the audience wary of her mental stability. Keiper’s version of Catherine, on the other hand, with her over-dramatic facial expressions, voice projection and body language, comes off unhinged and aggressive. During a pivotal scene clearly meant to pull on your heartstrings, she delivered her lines appearing inexplicably enraged.
Sure, it might be a bit unfair to compare a young actress to an Academy Award winner, but when you have such a character-driven play, the subtleties make a big difference. Also, with the theatrical production set entirely on their back porch, the film offers much more of a portal into the character’s world—you actually get to see Robert’s cluttered office and the beautiful college campus he loved so dearly.
But did any of this ruin the play? Absolutely not. It would be pretty hard to screw up Proof. But just remember that a Netflix subscription costs $7.99 and a theater ticket is $30.
Through Feb. 5. $35.75. Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut St. 215.574.3550. walnutstreettheatre.org