Here's a fun drinking game: Take a swig every time somebody in Proof mentions a number.
The 2000 play by David Auburn, which concerns aspiring, erstwhile, and self-denying mathematicians in Chicago, is awash in numerals — ages, page counts, inside-math jokes, and complex proofs and calculations that roll off the characters' tongues like so much medical jargon in House. In the play's smart and classy production at Dramaworks, Michael Amico's back-porch set — imbued with depth and dimension, like most of the theater's recent productions — is framed on both sides by pillars of chalkboard equations, scrawled and sprawled like some kind of visionary code waiting to be cracked.
And yet, Proof is a play set very much in messy reality, not the black-and-white order of mathematics. For its troubled characters, life's equations are rife with variables, with problems that lack solutions. A week after the funeral of her father — a once-eminent mathematician wracked by disease and mental breakdown — Catherine (Katherine Michelle Tanner) finds herself in a bitter torpor. She sleeps all day, drinks alone, and finds herself haunted by her dad's ghost and his cobwebby attic of withered genius, with its copious notebooks of crackpot numerology. But her father's scribbled detritus holds appeal for his former student, Hal Dobbs (Cliff Burgess), who, like a well-meaning vulture, has been rummaging his office for publishable material. A few moments alone with Catherine sets off a spark of romance, leading to a revelation that will turn the story on its head.
I won't spoil the rest, though if you've seen the respectable 2005 film adaptation, you know what's coming. Like Jake Gyllenhaal's Hal in the movie, Burgess cuts an awfully dashing math nerd, but he performs the part with a navel-gazing awkwardness that better reveals the character's insecure core. Tanner and Sarah Grace Wilson as Catherine's sister Claire are perfectly cast yin-and-yang siblings, easily matching Gwyneth Paltrow's and Hope Davis' film contributions. And Kenneth Kay, who appears in dreams and flashbacks as Catherine's father, is a professorial and subtly towering figure lording over Catherine from beyond the grave; his performance makes Anthony Hopkins' film version just a distant memory.
Proof is not a flashy play, like the Tony Award-winning Red, about artist Mark Rothko, or the kind of play that requires a physical transformation of an actor, like the Donald Marguiles play Time Stands Still, in which the protagonist is injured by a roadside bomb. I counted just one dramatic eruption of emotion in its two hours, paced by director Bill Hayes with engrossing briskness. The play's well-earned Pulitzer Prize is a result of nuance, not ostentation, and Dramaworks' low-key interpretation makes sure every meditation on madness and genius, trust and faith, and class and kin comes across with the elegance of a perfect proof.