That Smarts 

Proof explores the line between insanity and genius.

What's left when genius has gone? Insanity? Can genius be inherited? And insanity? David Auburn's Proof, currently at Playhouse on the Square, leaves the answers to these questions to the audience.

Thank you for giving us something to ponder.

At first, the story seems all too familiar. Robert (Dave Landis) is a famous mathematician whose genius got lost in the maze of madness. Robert is dead. What he left behind are two daughters: While Claire (Anne Dauber) was succeeding in New York, Catherine (Kim Justis) was stuck in Chicago with her sick father, with Hal (Jonathon Lamer), a young mathematician who worshiped Robert, and with 103 notebooks. It sounds very much like the storyline of A Beautiful Mind.

The timing of the two works is tangled. Auburn wrote Proof in the summer of 1998, and it premiered at the Manhattan Theatre Club in the spring of 1999 before it moved to Broadway in the fall of 2000. It won the Tony Award for Best Play and the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Sylvia Nasar's biography of the schizophrenic Noble Prize-winning mathematician John Nash Jr., A Beautiful Mind, on which the movie was loosely based, was published in June 1998. Ron Howard's movie premiered in December 2001.

The topic -- on screen, on paper, on stage -- is the sticky question of where genius ends and insanity begins. In Proof, it's hard to believe that the play could deal with anything more.

The once-genius Robert tried to find the answers to everything -- beautiful mathematics, the most elegant and perfect proofs -- in the decimal numbers on library books.

"He used to read all day," says Catherine. "He kept demanding more and more books. I took them out of the library by the carload. We had hundreds upstairs. Then I realized he wasn't reading: He believed aliens were sending him messages through the Dewey decimal numbers on the library books. He was trying to work out the code."

Auburn's first act provides a glimpse into this dysfunctional group, in which everybody is focused on Robert, the brilliant dead man. Hal, who at age 28 feels he is past his mathematical peak, tries feverishly to find a phenomenal proof in the notebooks Robert left behind. Catherine doesn't have much hope that he'll find something, because after the library book phase came the "writing phase: scribbling 19, 20 hours a day. I ordered him a case of notebooks, and he used every one." While Hal's interest in the notebooks weakens, his interest in Catherine becomes obvious.

So you sit in your seat thinking, Okay, it's going to be a beautiful love story. The against-all-odds kind of thing. You can live with that, especially since Lamer does a great job portraying a clumsy, geeky mathematician in love. You get comfortable, assuming that the second act is going to meander along in the same fashion. Claire, the evil, successful sister who didn't give a damn about her sick father, will probably try to destroy the sweet happiness, but in the end, everything will turn out fine.

But Auburn doesn't let you off that easily. The story spins in the opposite direction right before intermission, making you wish that the break could be skipped.

When you leave, you may wonder what this was all about. Catherine, 25, is a young woman who has spent the past five years of her life caring for a sick father: "I lived with him. I spent my life with him. I fed him. Talked to him. Tried to listen when he talked. Talked to people who weren't there. ... Watched him shuffling around like a ghost. He was filthy. I had to make sure he bathed." Catherine, who dropped out of school to take care of this man, didn't have friends, didn't seem to have a life beyond this insane genius. It's her father, after all. Her successful sister has been far away during all those years. Far enough to not have to deal with this man.

So who's the genius and who's insane? It's the ultimate question for Catherine. Can she have one without the other? Does she want either one? And then, aren't men supposed to be the great geniuses? As Hal says to her:

"Really original work -- it's all young guys."

"Young guys?"

"Young people."

"But it is men, mostly."

"There are some women."


Through October 27.

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