Madness and Mathematics 

Proof makes it official: Troubled math geniuses are the new troubled artists.

If aliens came to the East Bay and gathered everything they knew about us from our theater, their first conclusion would have to be that math, genius, and insanity are intimately fused. First it was the world premiere of Partition at the Aurora, the story of a man who thinks a Hindu goddess is writing advanced mathematical formulae on his tongue, and who eventually gets sick and dies because he's too obsessed with math to take care of himself. Then, in a much smaller way, a woman in Transparent Theater's Night and Day is convinced she's unfit for society because she likes to stay up late scratching out algebraic proofs by candlelight. Now, scant months later, it's the East Bay premiere of David Auburn's Proof at Playhouse West, a story about a brilliant mathematician who goes insane, dies, and then hangs around for an act to make his brilliant mathematician daughter wonder if she's any more compos mentis than he was. No more tubercular artists suffering nobly in their garrets -- that is so last century. Troubled math geniuses are the new troubled artists.

And Robert is very troubled. Beset by an insatiable desire to write and the conviction that aliens are sending him messages coded in the Dewey Decimal system, he shuffles around the house he shares with his younger daughter Catherine, filling notebooks with gobbledygook. After Robert dies, Catherine has to deal with Hal, a young mathematician who has come to sift through the older man's writings to see if he left anything behind worth keeping. She insists that her father's study contains "103 notebooks full of bullshit." Older sister Claire also shows up to provide marked contrast to the frumpy Catherine by wearing tailored things and talking brightly about how much better New York is than Chicago. Claire has a hidden agenda to get Catherine "back on track," but Catherine is having none of it. There's a lot of fighting, an exceptional amount of swearing for a Playhouse West production, and a lot of examples of how people who honestly love each other can end up smothering the people they care about. The play opens soon after Robert's death, and jumps back and forth explaining how things got to such a pass.

This nonchronological presentation -- a common feature in the work of some playwrights, notably Donald Margulies, whose Sight Unseen was part of Playhouse West's 2002-2003 season -- is only partially effective. While the first act moves forward in a logical, linear way, the second jumps back and forth unnecessarily between the past and present. It wouldn't seem so odd if both acts featured this temporal elasticity, but Auburn's decision to arrange the story thus makes it seem as though he didn't trust his audience to "get" some of the relationships. At least the second flashback makes a lot more sense than the first, and both serve to humanize characters who previously seemed one-sided.

It's also a chance for director Lois Grandi to get a lot of juice out of Jonathan Farwell as Robert, far and away the most natural member of the cast. With forty-plus years of experience on stage and television, Farwell has a welcome ease and presence, as well as a beautiful deep voice. One of the play's best and most heartbreaking moments is his -- a flashback in which we see that his character's remission from mental illness was sadly temporary. He also gets some of the sassiest lines, such as when he reassures Hal, his former student, that the younger man has a future in academia: "You'll be teaching younger, more irritating versions of yourself in no time."

The rest of the cast soldiers on somewhat awkwardly. Some of it is scriptural -- the relationship between Catherine and Hal, for example, is clearly meant to be difficult, and Catherine (Sorsha Miles) is played here as being just generally awkward and prickly. It doesn't help her mood that Hal is alternatively patronizing her and hitting on her, or that older sister Claire is convinced that Catherine herself may need institutional care. Catherine is mercurial. Sullen, argumentative, and apparently totally lacking in social grace one moment, she's conciliatory and interested the next. Miles often plays these changes with no visible transition from one to the other, which might be a conscious choice, but it's hard to say. Miles does a good job on the "don't touch me" moments; her anger is very believable.

In fact, the arguments often are the most believable moments in this production. A good example is the confrontation in which Catherine and Claire (Alison Ewing) finally get at the root of their hostility. All the time-honored sibling stuff comes up -- who's smarter, who was loved more, and so on -- and the discussion of whether Catherine was right to care for their father at home instead of institutionalizing him is honestly thought-provoking. Up until that point, we've only gotten her side: Catherine as loving, righteous martyr. The suggestion that she made the wrong decision comes as a sharp blow, as Claire makes a convincing argument that Robert should have had professional care and Catherine, her own life.

Zach Hummell, who got to be the angry character in last season's Visiting Mr. Green, is back as Hal, who hastens to assure Catherine that he is pretty hip for a mathematician. Hal's cockiness hides his insecurity about his own gifts; as he explains to Catherine, as a mathematician you peak at 23, and you're over at 50. "After that, you might as well teach high school," he says (a line that drew loud protest from the audience the night I went). The chemistry between Miles and Hummell works well enough that when he says some careless things in the second act we see the peril the relationship is in and hope it gets sorted out.

This season Playhouse West is using the Knight 3 Stage at the Dean Lesher Center, which is a vast improvement over its Locust Street home. Not only are the seats more numerous and comfortable, but there's room for a bigger set. Finally Grandi's set designer Doug Ham gets to build an exterior -- all of the action of the play takes place on the back porch of Robert and Catherine's house -- and the actors for once aren't sitting in the laps of one another or the audience.

Like much of what Playhouse West presents, Proof explores issues of family and guilt in a convincing fashion. There are moments when this show simply drags and it's hard to say why, but the change of venue is welcome and the play itself balances some smart humor with the pathos. Not as strong an outing as Partition or as elegant as Night and Day, but an interesting evening for anyone with a little math madness in their blood.

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