The mere fact of combining the science of mathematics with the visceral power of live theater gives "Proof" an advantage. It is not every day – it is hardly any day – that one comes across a serious play that relies on math jokes to lighten the mood.
But 15 years in since it won its Pulitzer and Tony Award, "Proof" doesn't need to prove its credentials. What it needs are actors who appreciate playwright David Auburn's intelligent script, and who realize that, as in a carefully constructed mathematical formula, success lies in getting the details just right.
Happily, that is what we get from the "Proof" now playing on the 710 Main Theatre stage. Opening night we saw a cast that not only knew its lines and hit its marks, but also one that felt believably rooted in the strained but loving family dynamic that Auburn designed so well.
Robert (David Hayes) is the brilliant father who astounded the mathematical world as a young man with his groundbreaking work – work he accomplished well before his brain betrayed him and he was overcome by mental illness. Most of the play takes place after Robert's sudden death.
Catherine (Marissa Biondolillo) is the daughter who gave up her own dreams to take care of her father. She shares his passion for numbers but fears she also may share his fate. With his death, she has lost the anchor that held her back but that also kept her from spinning off adrift.
Claire (Tracy Snyder) is the sister who didn’t stay. Unlike Catherine, she doesn't understand her father's genius. But though she left, she didn’t abandon them. Successful in the "real world," she paid the bills while Catherine did the caretaking.
Hal (Sean Marciniak) is the variable in the equation, a former student and protégé of Robert's. He is hoping that hidden somewhere in Robert's hundreds of notebooks, filled with the incoherent scribblings of a graphomaniac, there could be a treasure of mathematical discovery.
Among them, the four represent an astounding spectrum of psychological conditions, deftly handled and cleverly delivered by the cast, who all seem to know better than to overplay their hands.
Biondolillo tosses out Catherine's sharp comebacks with spontaneous flair when she feels challenged by the over-attentiveness of Hal and her sister.
Snyder is perfectly exasperated as Tracy, the family problem-solver who candidly admits she has virtually no understanding of the kinds of (mathematical) problems that fill the minds of her father and sister. The character could easily be unlikeable, but Snyder keeps her grounded and human, not allowing her longing for a normal life to seem selfish or uncaring.
Marciniak brings to Hal a terrific sense of timing, honed on the stand-up stage, that translates into an appealing nerdiness. While Hal has his own aspirations, they don't overshadow his respect for his mentor or what turns out to be a hidden affection for Catherine.
The emotional forces come to a head after Robert's death, when Hal discovers in one of the notebooks the grail he has been seeking, the solution – the proof -- to a mathematical puzzle that has defied mathematicians since there have been mathematicians.
One unbelievable proof quickly turns into another when questions arise over who actually came up with the long-sought solution. Suddenly the characters' positions pivot from caring to condescension and worse. Hal, who worried he was over the hill at age 28, because math is a young person's game, suddenly doubts whether a younger and female person would be capable of such a thing.
Where's the proof?
The production, from Buffalo Laboratory Theatre, is the sum of a wealth of perfect details: Hayes almost losing control of his own hands during an episode when it is really his mind he can't control; Snyder making the most perfect little "whatever that is" shrug when she mentions vegetarian chili; Biondolillo tosses up her arms in a tiny jump of victory when proven right in a mundane argument; and Marciniak trying to fudge the details about a math nerds band that he also happens to be in.
Fast-moving, heart-felt and just funny enough, this is a "Proof" that stands well on its own.
3 stars (out of four)
Presented by Buffalo Laboratory Theatre at 710 Main through April 2.
A young woman is haunted by her father's success, his fate and his ghost when a ground-breaking mathematical discovery raises even more theories of what she may have inherited from him.