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Proof

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Reviewed by Julius Novick

Presented by Manhattan Theater Club, Roger Berlind, Carole Shorenstein Hays, Jujamcyn Theaters, Ostar Enterprises, Daryl Roth, and Stuart Thompson at the Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 W. 48 St., NYC. Opened Oct. 24 for an open run.

"Proof," by David Auburn, has transferred from the Manhattan Theater Club to the Walter Kerr Theatre, to test whether Broadway can support a small (single set, cast of four), quiet, adroitly constructed, intense, intelligent, beautiful play.

Catherine, Mr. Auburn's heroine, has spent the last few years caring for her just-deceased father, a great mathematician whose career was interrupted by insanity. He has left behind him dozens of notebooks, and a pushy graduate student named Hal is eager to discover whether these notebooks are devoted to mathematics or just madness. (Hal is the focus of some genuinely funny jokes about math nerds.) One notebook in particular turns out to contain an immensely important mathematical proof, and becomes somewhat of a McGuffin: we wonder what will become of it. The main questions of the play, however, which Mr. Auburn keeps alive with wonderful skill, are how much of her father's madness Catherine has inherited, and how much of his genius.

Mary-Louise Parker's remarkable performance allows us to see—and feel—that Catherine's flat affectlessness and withering irony are equally the weapons of a deeply disturbed young woman. When the pressures on her become unendurable, she explodes with the full force of an adult and the uninhibited rage of a child. And in spite of her extraordinary beauty, Ms. Parker's Catherine is a believable mathematician. Larry Bryggman appears, in flashbacks and in Catherine's mind, as her father; he and Ms. Parker delicately evoke a warm but faintly unhealthy relationship. Ben Shenkman as the geeky, cheeky grad student, and Johanna Day as Catherine's worldly sister, are admirable.

The action unfolds on the comfortably shabby back porch of the family home near the University of Chicago, designed with scrupulous realism by John Lee Beatty, with discolored brick walls and leaves drifted into the corners. Except for a few back-and-forth exchanges that are quick to the point of slickness, Daniel Sullivan's direction is pitch-perfect.

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